By Edwin Crayton
If you’ve ever attended a public meeting for any organization that serves the public, you probably know that as decisions are being discussed, usually citizens are given an opportunity to ask questions and share input before the decision makers vote on the issue at hand. It’s this way all over the country and I’ve lived in about four states so far on both coasts. It’s called democracy and the only time I’ve seen it truly ignored consistently is at meetings of the Natchitoches Community Improvement Foundation (NCIF). The way it works at NCIF is the public is not allowed to ask questions about anything or even comment until after decisions are made or agenda items are voted on. I am sure you realize of course, that means the public is therefore not able to participate in decisions that affect its interest. To see what I mean, look at the copy of the agenda that is attached to this article (please forgive the stains, it was raining that night). See that section at the very bottom before closing? That is called the public comment section by NCIF and it is the only time the public is allowed to say anything in the entire meeting. And I mean anything. If a member of the public has a question about a funding issue or needs clarity or even just wants to make a brief comment, Chairman Leo Walker will cut them off sternly and remind them that they can only comment at the very end.
I mentioned this disturbing problem at the October 9, 2018 quarterly NCIF Board Meeting. I told the board that any public meeting should allow the public to have an opportunity to ask questions and briefly comment before decisions are made. I mentioned that making people wait until after all decisions have been made basically nullifies the influence of the public. I pointed out that it is pointless to allow public comment only after the organization or board has already decided on a course of action. I then suggested they alter the agenda slightly to include public comment with time limits before each vote, or at least allow questions at earlier points in the meetings so the public can influence decisions. That is the way City Council does it and as far as I know, it’s the policy of every other organization that serves the public. After all, I told them, it is a public meeting. This suggestion was rejected by the board. To further amplify their apparent low regard for public input, Secretary Mildred Joseph actually walked out as I was speaking. That matters because her function as secretary of NCIF is to record the entire meeting, including public comments. How can she do that if she leaves? And she did not ask anyone to fill in for her. So how do public comments get put in the minutes if the secretary leaves before hearing them?
Having low regard for public input is not just rude. It is simply unwise. The public has a perspective that is valuable because they are the ones for whom the organization was founded in the first place. The public can offer practical advice that may be otherwise overlooked. The public can provide vital information that may help the organization make smarter choices and even save money. That is true of all public service organizations and most understand this. On the other hand, when the public is treated like a stepchild, citizens tend to withdraw and not attend meetings because they begin to feel their opinion is not valued. Maybe some organizations actually want that to happen because they feel lack of public involvement gives them total control. It means they don’t have to be accountable to the public or to anyone if they are allowed to operate this way. But total control is a double-edged sword. It leads to arrogance, tunnel vison and bad decisions because those decisions are made in a vacuum. Before you know it, strong personalities are dominating decisions, intimidating others from giving opposing views and that can lead to corruption or mismanagement. In fact, had NCIF allowed more public input in the past, maybe it wouldn’t be in a situation where by its own admission it has not been able to account for what happened to $19,500 in public funds. NCIF meets quarterly on the second Tuesday of each month. The next meeting should be on January 8. Usually at 1st Baptist Amulet at 7pm. Check the local paper. Please let these people hear from you: NCIF board members are: Leo Walker, Oswald Taylor, Ed Ward Jr., Billye Sue Johnson, Brenda Milner, Shaniqua Hoover, Mildred Joseph, Estelle Braxton, James Below Jr., Catherine Hoover, Kelvin Porter, Renee Porter, Gwendolyn Williams, Diane Blake Jones and Gwen Hardison
“Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”–Lord Acton, 19th Century British Lord
“You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”–Jesus in the Book of John, Chapter 8, verse 32