Originally created 09/13/03

Only in Augusta ...

Public hearings are called so people outside of government can communicate to their elected officials their thoughts on government policy. Only in Augusta would public officials show up at a public hearing to tell and argue with the public what they think policy should be.

Yes, this putting the cart before the horse happened at the special sales tax committee's first public hearing on what the spending priorities should be for next year's referendum to extend the local option sales tax for another seven years.

Seldom is anything more important to taxpayers than how elected officials spend their money. The sales tax panel - a group of citizens appointed by the Augusta Commission - was at the Henry Brigham Community Center to hear what projects regular Augustans think sales tax revenues should be spent on.

As a way of suggestion, the panel brought its own list of projects, but some in the room misunderstood and thought the list was final. They wondered what they were doing there if the panel had already made up its mind.

Then at least one city commissioner got up to hold forth on his pet project, which wasn't on the list. The meeting descended into further chaos when sales tax panelists began arguing with each other and the public. One panel member even yanked the microphone away from Chairman Ed Tarver.

A dignified public hearing had turned into something like an out-of-control nursery school. So the sales tax committee met again this week to draw up new ground rules for the remaining five public hearings.

Some of them wanted to ban city commissioners from talking up their pet projects. That made sense. If city commissioners already know what projects they want, then why have public hearings at all? When elected officials go to hearings, they should listen and take notes. They might even learn something.

These hearings are crucial in building support for the referendum. Voters are much more likely to pass a sales tax if they and their neighbors and friends have had a say in putting it together. But if they think "the fix" is in, they'll trust neither the hearings nor the referendum.

That would be an awful shame, because there's too much at stake to risk killing off the local penny tax. It would be the equivalent of shutting off a water main.

In the end, the sales tax committee compromised. They'll let city commissioners talk for three minutes like everyone else, but no longer. That's reasonable. No special treatment.

Still, why commissioners would take up any time at all at a meeting called to get public input is beyond us. They get to hold forth as long as they want on any issue they wish every week at their own meetings.

It's the Augusta Commission's job to approve the projects that go on the sales tax ballot. That's when commissioners have their say - the final say. Until then, they should let the regular folk have their say without interruption at the public hearings.


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