Like a lot of small town governments, the City of Winder has gotten into some bad habits. Chief among those is an insiders-club atmosphere where public business is discussed mostly in private, with only perfunctory public discussions.
All of that changed last week, however, when new councilman Bob Dixon began to ask questions at a city council meeting. He was joined by councilmen David Maynard and Sonny Morris, much to the obvious dismay of some city leaders.
A couple of examples of how the city has kept decision-making close to the vest:
• The city council supposedly has sub-committees, but those apparently never meet. Those meetings should be open and announced in advance; if they meet, this newspaper has never been notified. Without functioning sub-committees, decisions are being made among just a handful of people.
• Holding city council work sessions the day before a regular voting meeting gives virtually no time for reflection or public input. Most governments hold their work sessions at least a week ahead of a voting meeting to give the public — and council members — time to react to proposals; Winder jams their meetings together so that can’t happen.
• Even council members aren’t always clear about how Winder decisions get made. When Dixon asked last week who sets the city’s utility rates, no one seemed to know for certain. Maynard said he thought the council did. He was right. Those rates are in the city’s budget, but until last year when a private citizen began asking questions, there had seldom been any public discussion by the council about utility rates or the budget. For the most part, the Winder council has just been rubber-stamping the budget with few questions.
One of the functions of a local government is to make its decisions in an open, transparent manner. But most small town government leaders are very resistant to that idea. Because of that, citizens often feel left in the dark about why a government makes certain decisions.
Although it’s often uncomfortable, city councils and other local governments should hold their discussions in the open and not just consider a public meeting as a formality to approve what they’ve already decided in private.