June 17, 2006

Welcome to UC Freeholder Land
Leave your freedom of speech at the door

As my children have been growing up, there has always been one “smart little you know what” in the group who thought he/she had everything all figured out and attempted to share his newly gleaned knowledge of what democracy means.

Most parents have encountered this scenario usually around the sixth or seventh grade. “It’s a free country you know, I have rights, and I have freedom of speech”. My response usually went something like, “Yes it is a free county, and yes you have rights, however, they end at that door, in here it is Mommy & Daddy Land, a benevolent dictatorship, and guess who is in charge.”

Being extremely fortunate that all five boys and two girls got the message at the time of this initial exercise, we haven’t had any repeat performances. Actually, that was also about the same time that they learned about diplomacy and to their credit wisely choose that alternative route to express future opinions. These early civics lessons came flooding back to my mind last Thursday after attending a meeting of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders.

The freeholders were slated to vote on accepting the county budget, totaling $409 million, so it is understandable that this meeting would attract a number of county residents who felt the need to speak out on the budget.

Residents are allowed to address the board at certain points during the meetings prior to when votes are taken regarding ordinances and resolutions. Questions are frowned upon, although grudgingly answered. At the end of the meeting a time is provided when attendees are allowed to address the board by way of “comments only” on any topic they care to discuss.

Residents are limited to five minutes each. A green, yellow and red light system is used to control the session, and I have noticed that the lights are generally in play when “certain” individuals approach the podium. When the yellow light goes on the speaker is alerted that their allotted time is almost up, reminding me of the old TV game show “Beat-the-Clock”. Should the red become lit the speaker is told, “Thank you, your time is up”. Refusal to leave the podium can lead to ejection, which has taken place. There are also restrictions regarding content and language.

One would think that this is a great opportunity to get what is on one’s mind off one’s chest by making a comment or two about the budget, no-bid contracts or hiring practices. However, just mentioning the word nepotism in relation to county government elicits a stern warning from the county counsel that the speaker is getting “dangerously close to crossing the line.”

Attending these meetings for three years now has made me acutely aware that those who offer kudos can go on forever well past the allotted five minutes. While it seems that those who speak of their disappointment in the freeholders performance are “crossing the line” this could translate into: “You are out of order and had better sit down before we throw you out for criticizing us."

In his closing comments during last Thursday’s public meeting, Freeholder Chester Holmes reminded residents in the audience that “Our chairman here has his attorney sitting next to him. You need to ask yourselves do you have your attorney sitting next to you? You should keep that in mind when you cross the line while addressing this board."

So much for freedom of speech, freedom to posses a differing opinion and thinking that we are participating in the democratic process here in Union County.

I have given great consideration to doing just as Freeholder Holmes has suggested and perhaps I'll be flanked by my attorney the next time I go to the next meeting as it appears that one must leave one’s Constitutional rights outside like children when we cross the threshold into “Freehholder Land."