GAINESVILLE – It started with a parliamentary procedure; it ended with expressions of concern and frustration.
That was the alpha and the omega of Thursday afternoon’s Gainesville Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (GHMPO) Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) meeting.
In between the 90-minute meeting went as usual with the 19-member CAC (all appointees) addressing matters regarding the FY2018 Unified Planning Work Program, considering a request for addition funds for Jackson County’s transportation plan and hearing an update on a regional freight study.
The meeting opened with the choosing of a new chairperson and vice chairperson. Former chairman Wayne Stradley resigned his post suddenly in August, frustrated at a difference of opinion with members of the GHMPO Policy Committee over the structure and voice of the CAC.
With Stradley sitting in the audience vice-chairwoman Renee Gerrell gaveled to order the meeting and immediately called for nominations to fill the vacated chairman’s post; hers was the only name raised and without contest she accepted the leadership role. Ken Stanley was then chosen as the new vice-chair.
The Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) and the Policy Committee are two of the three committees that make up the GHMPO; the Technical Coordinating Committee is the third. The three groups are to work in conjunction with each other planning and providing for the future transportation needs of Hall County, as well as a small portion of Jackson County.
In a nutshell, the process normally begins with the Technical Coordinating Committee, as they focus on the technical perspective of a suggested transportation program or plan; then the CAC weaves in public opinion on that transportation plan; lastly the Policy Committee makes the final decision on that plan using the information provided by the first two committees.
But differences between the CAC and the Policy Committee over the scope of authority and influence held by the CAC led to Stradley’s resignation and the need to choose a new leader.
The meeting ended with chairwoman Gerrell expressing dismay over a recent change in rules for CAC members she says was imposed on her committee by Policy Committee members.
“It had been suggested by the City of Gainesville (one of the six seats on the Policy Committee) that we be allowed to have three unexplained absences out of four (meetings) in a year,” Gerrell said.
Gerrell said the CAC decided differently: “This Committee decided to reject that and we voted that it be two.”
Gerrell said it’s an insult for someone to be a part of the CAC and only have to attend one meeting a year. “So 25-percent is the threshold for being committed. I personally take that as an affront. If I’m going to agree to be an advocate for the citizens of my community I need to show up more than 25-percent of the time.”
That’s when things got tense according to Gerrell. “The Policy Committee ignored our recommendation…twenty-five percent is an insult; if you can’t be here more than once out of a year than you need to take your name out of consideration.”
“It’s basically saying we are of no consequence, to my estimation,” Gerrell said. “It’s a comment on how they (Policy Committee) value our input. It all started as a control issue and has spiraled into ridiculousness, in my opinion.”
Vice chairman Stanley agreed emphatically. “Shame on them; the elected officials should be more conscientious about whom they appoint than to appoint someone that’s not going to show up. That’s my soapbox for the evening.”
Gerrell then turned her ire on the fact that one of the six positions on the Policy Committee currently is being filled by an unelected private citizen. The voting seat representing Hall County is being manned by Bennie Bagwell, that according to several CAC members.
“Our illustrious Commissioner (Chairman Richard) Higgins has appointed a non-elected official…to sit on the Policy Committee which votes and makes decisions about how our money is spent,” Gerrell said. “I have a huge problem with that.”
“Or at the very least appoint another elected official to go in his place,” Gerrell said.
Most members of the CAC appeared to be unaware of the situation but all agreed to further investigate the circumstances and discuss the matter at their next meeting.
GHMPO Transportation Planning Manager Sam Baker said Higgins' nomination of Bagwell as his designee on the Policy Committee was according to county bylaws.
“It’s one-out-of-six right now but what’s to stop it from being six-out-of-six?” Gerrell queried.