Citizens’ committee opens meetings to public

Sharna Johnson

A citizens’ committee has appointed its own chairman and voted to open meetings to the public, overriding two directives from Curry County commissioners as its first order of business.

Attorney Richard Rowley II said during the group’s first meeting Tuesday, he was selected to serve as chairman and spokesman for the courthouse committee.

Wednesday, Commissioner Frank Blackburn applauded the decision to open the meetings and said he doesn’t mind the chair appointment.

“I don’t have any problem with that and I’m glad they’re opening the meeting,” he said. “I’ll get along with that. (But) I believe they do need some assistance from Lance (Pyle) to acquire information.”

Due to a death in his family, Blackburn was absent from a Dec. 7 meeting where commissioners issued directives to appoint County Manager Lance Pyle as non-voting chairman on two citizen committees to study jail and courthouse issues.

Commissioners also ordered the committees’ proceedings closed to the public, unless the respective group had an issue in which it desired public input.

Commissioner Caleb Chandler said he didn’t know details but if the committee wanted to change its construction, the county commission would have input.

“If they’re wishing to do something that’s not in accordance with the county commission’s ruling then we’ll have to address that at the next county commission meeting,” he said.

Paul Barnes of the other committee — the jail committee — confirmed his group met Wednesday. He said they toured the adult male and female buildings of the jail and the juvenile detention center, then adjourned without taking further action.

Rowley said the courthouse committee selected a chairman other than Pyle because members believe they need autonomy from the county to objectively serve the community.

Rowley said the committee welcomes Pyle’s assistance as a facilitator and plans to continue working with him.

“The consensus of the group was that with Lance being the county manager, that probably was not a good idea that he be the chair. Obviously Lance is going to be there and involved in all the meetings because he’s going to be a facilitator… Everybody felt very comfortable with Lance (Pyle); he was very accommodating,” he said.

“(But) it needs the perception to be and the reality to be that we’re independent of the county… I think Lance would be fine except the perception would be that he might have an agenda, even though we didn’t feel like he did.”

Rowley said Pyle has already begun researching some of the committee’s questions and helped to clarify issues that arose at the meeting.

As a reflection and voice for the community, the group also voted to open its meetings to the public, Rowley said, explaining dates and times will be announced in advance of meetings.

Procedurally, the meetings will be informal since the committee is charged with developing recommendations to pass on to the commission and has no authority to create policy or spend money, he said.

Commissioners created the jail and courthouse citizens committees in response to Nov. 2 voter defeat of two bond issues aimed at raising taxes to pay to build a judicial complex.

The committees are volunteer members from the community and have a March deadline to present their ideas to the commission.

Rowley said given the tight deadline, the committee discussed meeting as frequently as possible.

Rowley also said the committee has already reached at least one conclusion:

“The group the consensus is that whatever we come up with, we need to have the judicial function separated physically from the administrative offices of the county,” he said.

“Trying to have them all located in one building — that’s probably not a good idea.”

The group has already toured the courthouse and is arranging to tour the newly acquired postal building in the 400 block of Gidding Street next week, he said. No date has been set.

Rowley said the first meeting lasted more than two hours and was productive.

“There was a fair amount of discussion and everybody had input. I think that everybody’s taking their assignment very seriously,” he said.

CNJ staff writer Liliana Castillo contributed to this report.