Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 4, 2013

Meetings reveal government in action

By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— To apologetically paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, three things in life are certain: death, taxes and meetings.

This coming Tuesday we in the newsroom are going to have to negotiate who will cover — or if we can cover — five meetings scheduled throughout the day. With one in Princeton, one in Tazewell, Va., another in Bluefield, Va., and two different meetings at two different times in Bluefield, it can sometimes be difficult to cover everything we would like to. We try our best, but none of us have managed the feat of being in two places at once as of yet.

Unfortunately, not as many people come to these board meetings as probably should. Long gone are the days when town meetings were big, social events and everyone came to not only find out what was going on but to see others in their community.

I have been in many board meetings where it was just me and the board, or in the case of meetings in Bluefield, me, the board and Art Riley. As interested as people like Art and I are in these proceedings, I sometimes feel like these boards would probably like to see more of an audience. I sometimes wonder if officials feel like they are wasting their breath when the board is larger than the amount of people in the audience.

Of course, empty meeting rooms aren’t always the case. I am always surprised to see what issues get people mad enough to participate in the democratic process and their right to assemble. When I first arrived in Bluefield, I was quickly briefed on the controversy involving windmills in Tazewell County. For a brief moment, I wasn’t sure if I had moved to West Virginia or La Mancha. Then came the trash wars in Bluefield followed by the animal shelter controversy throughout Mercer County.

Though it may seem crazy to an outside observer, covering these issues from the first fallout until it is resolved — or just forgotten about — has let me really experience that government process we all learned about in civics class. Of course, there are a lot of things I have learned from the real world experience of board meetings that no civics or government course could ever prepare me for.

First of all, when people start bringing their bags of garbage to city meetings you know things are getting serious. There is nothing like walking into a meeting only to see — well, actually, smell — several bags of empty soup cans, banana peels and coffee grounds being used as a demonstration piece for local lawmakers.

Another thing I have learned is that any board meeting can go from zero to completely bizarre in a matter of seconds. One month, I’m covering a county commission meeting where the meeting room is completely vacant. The next month, I show up and the meeting room is full of people wearing their ASPCA and Humane Society shirts along with scarves, jackets and hats with animal pictures. In the midst of all these animal lovers is a man dressed up in Revolutionary War regalia.

I wondered briefly if the animal rights advocates and the tea party express had partnered up together only to find the gentleman in question was re-enacting as Gen. Hugh Mercer to celebrate local heritage. Still, it was very strange to see a Revolutionary War general sitting next to a woman wearing a sweatshirt with kittens.

I have also learned how to tell when someone has most likely overextended his or her welcome at the public comments podium. When board members are exchanging smirks and winks or checking their cell phones covertly under the meeting table, it isn’t always because they aren’t interested or don’t care about what you have to say. I have seen plenty of people who do not realize they are rambling or addressing an issue that has a) already been solved, b) something beyond the board’s control, c) has nothing to do with the topic at hand or d) nonsensical.

Trust me, I do love an off-topic segue haranguing local civic boards as much as the next journalist. However, when even the reporters in the room are resisting the urge to check their watches you might want to save face and sit down before you dig yourself into a verbal hole, not to mention make your friends and neighbors question your overall sanity.

Overall, I am one of those nerdy journalists who actually loves covering meetings. I scour agendas to see what topics I will get to write about or to glean information about what machinations are at work behind the scene. And like many of my colleagues I do feel a twinge of excitement when I see a variation of those four little words all journalists love to read: refreshments to be served.

At meetings, you get to find out so much about the area, and get to see the community at work — whether it is for better or worse. I get to see our Constitution in motion, to see our government of the people, by the people and for the people in action. I would encourage everyone else to try and do the same.

Kate Coil is a reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at kcoil@bdtonline.com.