The first 60 days as a county commissioner
March 29, 2013
When our boys were 9 and 12 years old I asked them to write a letter to their mother, my wife, on Mother’s Day in 1984. They did, and our youngest son started off by saying, “Mom you have done some rights and some wrongs.” So when people ask, how it’s going as a county commissioner? I want to say I have done “some rights and some wrongs.”
My odyssey began in January 2012. I was concerned about the county, spending borrowed money on a community center and not having money to repair roads or provide affordable water and sewer service to its residents. I declared I would run. It was not a spur of the moment decision; it was a dedication to a principle that good ideas are necessary to improve the county.
On Nov. 8, 2012, the political pundits explained how fortunate any challenger was to prevail because 94 percent of all incumbents won their elections across the entire United States. Not a good night to be a challenger. The good Lord was with me as a successful challenger.
I hoped I would be invited to a welcome briefing, to learn the people and the rules—a welcoming orientation to the county commission. I waited eagerly until Thanksgiving, and nothing happened. I realized training/orientation was not going to occur. The good news for the electorate is there is no behind scenes orientation. In fact, there is no orientation, other than what you personally arrange. It became clear I was burning valuable learning time; it was time to get aggressive.
Searching the web, I found and enrolled in the University of Nevada, Reno introductory course for county commissioners. So in December of 2012, eight hours and $192 later, I had completed the first course offerings covering the Nevada Ethics Law, the Open Meeting Law, county financials, and heard first hand from retiring commissioners. I also made appointments with key staff to learn more about them, but it was hit and miss as I did not have an organization chart.
The most informative sessions was provided by the state deputy attorney general in charge of administering the open meeting law and our district attorney. I realized the law was not simple. It became crystal clear, even though I was not sworn-in, the law applied to me. My intention to talking to each commissioner about who should be the chair could not be done. The advice was to conduct the discussion during the first commission meeting.
I tried to engage my fellow commissioners during the meeting, but the discussion was truncated into a nominating motion. A call for the vote came directly after the nomination. It was at that moment I realized the impact of being elected. I was about to cast my first public vote, it was not really my vote, but the vote for all the people I represent. I thought this is a solemn responsibility. And then I thought our first vote is going to be—nay.
I was frustrated as to why the others did not want to discuss the motion. My first vote was a nay on principle, nothing personal. But the larger question to be answered was and is how to get ideas agendized, so we can discuss them? I am working on that.
It seems the lack of training will be over-come by on the job training. So from the first meeting, I learned several things. First, the making of motions is a maneuver used to cut off discussion and move on to the next topic. Secondly, after the vote, the minority is expected to support the majority decision much like when the boss makes a decision on the direction of the company.
During the meeting on Feb. 7, I learned another lesson. I was eager to discuss the proposed grants. I was prepared, and I could not wait to begin the discussion. Perhaps overly enthusiastic, the discussion got side-tracked by a discussion of the order in the agenda. It was my fault that I let that become the issue.
The “wrongs” I have had could have been eliminated if there had an organized training program. But the “rights” are really amazing. It is one thing to acknowledge you represent residents, it is quite another to know you are voting for them. It is an awesome responsibility. Looking to the future, my hope is that our votes will be successful based on “not what has been, but what will be,” to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher.
Barry Penzel is a Douglas County commissioner.