Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Greg Jordan

April 24, 2014

Speaking to an empty room: Public input vital to local officials

— — I have lost count of all the county commission, board of education, and city council meetings I’ve covered since joining the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Sometimes the venue is packed and I’m lucky to find a seat; front rows are always a good bet since so many people prefer sitting in the back.

These public meetings are usually well attended when a controversial item in on the agenda. Sometimes the attendees want to support a proposal, and oftentimes they want to oppose it. Those meetings are pretty interesting and I can usually count on a good story.

Then there is the opposite end of the spectrum when I’m the sole member of the audience. I might see one or two other members of the media or a couple of people who are interested in one or two items on the agenda, but seating is absolutely no problem. Not many members of the public attend city council or county commission meetings unless they have a direct and immediate concern about an issue.

Now I do understand why attending a government meeting isn’t on many evening agendas. When people come home after a long day of work, they want to eat dinner, relax, handle sundry chores and spend time with their families. Fitting in a public meeting after dinner isn’t always appealing. It’s just one more thing to do.

That’s one of the reasons why reporters cover government meetings. I like to say we represent the people who would have attended, but could not. Commissioners, board members and supervisors get to know you and say they appreciate our presence.

I do know these councils, boards of education, and other entities like seeing the public come out to their meetings and express their opinions. When I envision being a public official — not that I have any plans to run for public office — I picture meeting in front of an empty or nearly empty room. The thought of addressing an empty room isn’t pleasant.

When I was studying to be a teacher, I would practice my lesson plans by setting up a mock “class” made of gargoyles and some action figures. I had the Terminator, the Green Goblin, and Mulder and Scully from “The X-Files” in my class. Yes, my “class” was silly, but it was better than addressing thin air. If I was a city council member, I’d be tempted to put mannequins in the public seating.

Our democracy values public meetings because the people have a right to see their public figures discuss issues and make decisions in front of the people who elected them to office. Public officials should value this attendance because they can get the public’s input.

I was one of the few people who attended Tuesday’s meeting of the Bluefield City Board. Board Member Chuck McGonagle noted the sparse attendance and asked the city’s citizens to come out, attend the board’s meetings, and give its members input.

“We can use it,” he said.

lll

There are times when tractor-trailer drivers amaze me. My one time driving a large truck — a battered moving van — taught me that being at the wheel of a huge vehicle isn’t easy. I put a huge gash down its side, but the owner didn’t notice because it was already so banged up. I like to think the damage added character.

I drove it on Route 460, but I doubt that I could have maneuvered on our more curvy roadways. Professional truckers, however, can do it. Even the result of an honest mistake can be inspiring.

On Tuesday afternoon, I had just finished covering two cases at the Mercer County Courthouse when Assistant Managing Editor Charles Owens gave me a  call: Could I check out a report of a tractor-trailer spilling diesel fuel on Cloverdew Dairy Road.

I found the scene and discovered that two tractor-trailers were stuck on that narrow, winding road. A few gallons of diesel had spilled from one of them, but the Green Valley-Glenwood Fire Department was cleaning it up.

Those huge vehicles had to navigate two serpentine turns before getting stuck. I don’t understand how they got as far as they did. It was amazing.

Deputies and troopers have told me more than once about how global positioning systems (GPS) sometimes lead truck drivers who are unfamiliar with our region up into narrow, one-lane roads high in the mountains. One time a GPS led a tractor-trailer down Lorton Lick Road toward Montcalm; the computer told the driver that was the quickest way to Beckley. I guess it would be a quick way if you have an ATV or a four-wheel drive truck. The driver soon found that he had driven his 18-wheeler up a one-lane road.

Technology is a wonderful thing, but there is something about the mountains that confuse GPS gizmos. The computers can’t grasp the idea that a short Point A to Point B path might have a mountain in the middle of it.

I might get a GPS some day, but I think I’ll use my trusty road atlas until then. Then the only computer that might get confused is the one between my ears.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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