Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Democracy, Rampant

Last night's meeting of the Watauga County Commission -- all three hours of it -- was as lively an exercise in democracy as I've attended in many a year. At the end of it, County Commission Chair Jim Deal noted that a record number of people had chosen to speak out during the public comment section. Their speaking out was in the best tradition of America: people felt perfectly free to whine, carp, invoke the Constitution, call upon REALITY (while appearing thoroughly untethered from it), and proclaim revolution across the land. Interest groups flocked, so that there was standing room only in the county's brand-new commissioners' meeting room. Citizens talked -- and in some cases the County Commissioners talked back -- and a remarkable amount of information got aired.

A time-line of some of the high points:

6:00 p.m. -- Jim Deal gavels meeting to order on time. Walls are lined by skate-boarders in matching T-shirts, come with their parents (in many cases) to lobby for a county skate-board park. It's Grunge Night at the County Commission!

7:21 p.m. -- "It's not a Republican vs. Democrat issue." So says the Republican member of the County Board of Elections (and a lawyer -- see below), protesting the possible closing of the county's smallest precinct and illustrating incidentally that it was MOST CERTAINLY a Republican vs. Democrat issue. The Democratic Chair of the Board of Elections had just pointed out that the polling place in North Fork was in violation of two separate state statutes, including the fact that it is not handicapped accessible.

7:25 p.m. -- The Republican member of the Elections Board -- Lord, is he still talking? -- says "We ought not let the details and the minutia in the statutes get in our way." Doncha just love lawyers? I momentarily black out, contemplating the possibilities of not letting "the details and the minutia" stand in my way.

7:26 p.m. -- Speaking of lawyers, Board Chair Jim Deal agrees with the Republican lawyer that the North Fork polling place ought to remain open, and by the same token, all polling places in the county should be as accessible as possible to the voters -- a rather pointed reference to the Republican lawyer's efforts a month earlier to prevent the moving of the Boone 3 precinct onto the campus of Appalachian State University, where 80 percent of the voters in that precinct live.

7:36 p.m. -- Kelvin Byrd, the county's tax collector, presented his figures on a "revenue neutral" tax rate following the recent property revaluation. Current rate is 39.5 cents. Mr. Byrd announced that 31.3 cents would be "revenue neutral" (though everyone realizes that some people's tax bills may still go up. That's just how the millage rate crumbles).

7:45 -- Chairman Deal, in explaining to the audience what "revenue neutral" means, brings up the propaganda put in the Watauga Democrat by Mr. Thomas Roy of Bonita Springs, Florida (see this). "It's the great thing about America," Mr. Deal said. "Anybody can write anything and put it in the paper, no matter whether it's true or not. I don't have a lot of sympathy for Mr. Roy of Bonita Springs, Florida, and his second home."

7:50 -- Chairman Deal, clearing the air of the smoke put up by several other county propagandists, many of whom were sitting in the room last night: "Taxes will NOT remain at 39.5 cents per $100, and whoever's telling you that is NOT telling you the truth. And we do NOT need to raise taxes for the schools, and whoever's telling you THAT is not telling you the truth."

8:08 -- Public Comment commences. First speaker says, "I question the need for a county recreation center when Exxon is making such huge profits." I black out again, straining to get the connection.

8:20 -- Another citizen makes a really nasty comment about a candidate for public office, by way of complaining about an undesirable land-use in his neighborhood: "I bet you people wouldn't let this go on if it was down the road from Virginia Foxx." I decide that the hidden injuries of class are behind all complaints made to government.

8:23 -- We hear that virtually all voters were "locked out" of the decision-making process that has led to a recommendation for a brand new high school ... through a "series of highly controlled group-think sessions" put on by a "Soviet-style" government that is "corrupt," "corrupt and oppressive." Ah, the American talent for insult!

8:31 -- An 83-year-old gentleman from Sugar Grove tells us all that "spraying" is killing all the wild life and that it's going to kill all of us too. But he doesn't say WHAT spraying. I'm thinking Agent Orange.

8:34 -- A citizen wants to know what the County Commission has done, relative to a new high school. Jim Deal responds that the County Commission hasn't done anything, because the School Board has not presented any plan. There are apparently several offers now on the table to buy the old high school property at a substantial profit, which will save the taxpayers many millions of $ toward the building of a new school, but Mr. Deal explains that such negotiations are necessarily done in secret and according to state law for very good reasons. Mr. Deal says he is not in favor of paying for a formal appraisal of the old high school property: "You get an offer to buy, and if the offer is good enough, you sell. End of story."

8:39 -- Commissioner David Blust, rumored to be a businessman and confirmed as a candidate for the state Senate, asks out loud, "What's the difference between an informal and a formal appraisal?" Chairman Deal looks at him.

8:47 -- Spokeswoman for a newly formed group, Citizens for Children, announces the group will be lobbying for a new high school on a new site. In other words, Citizens for Children is the counter-group to RID. The rumored mass demonstration of RID at the meeting -- though many of the RID leaders are present in the room -- does not materialize. Likely more victims of "Soviet-style" oppression and group-think, we reckon.

8:49 -- A young man warns the Commissioners that local revolution may be necessary if the Commissioners don't do something about keeping Floridians from buying second homes here.

8:52 -- More invocation of the Constitution to bash Floridians, specifically the Ginn development. Evidently the Constitution does not apply to anyone not born in Watauga County, a fact I had heard rumors about and am glad to have confirmed.

8:56 -- The seriously bright Matt Cooper talks knowledgeably about making any new high school wholly sustainable with renewable energy. The guy's talking systems and specifications! Chairman Deal asks him to make a presentation to the School Board.

9:00 -- Commissioner Keith Honeycutt, running hard to the environmental left in his race for reelection, assures everyone that he regularly talks to Matt Cooper. Hell, they're practically drinking buddies!

9:04 -- Final speaker requests that the County Commission take away the permits for the Ginn development. Interesting, if oblique, way to get at the kernel in the nut: granting "personhood" to corporations in the 19th-century was the beginning of all our troubles in Watauga County today. But that's another can of worms.

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