Tensions ran high during an Aug. 13 meeting of a task force charged with addressing the county’s noise ordinance when members clashed with County Manager Vincent Jones over the group’s role in developing a draft ordinance to present to county commissioners.
Jones led last week’s meeting in the absence of county attorney Hassan Kingsberry, the group’s facilitator. He was accompanied by Warren County Planning and Zoning Administrator Ken Krulik and Executive Assistant/Deputy Clerk to the Board of Commissioners Paula Pulley.
As the meeting began, Jones noted that the task force had a chance to review examples of noise ordinances from other areas and hoped they would serve as a catalyst for discussion about what they would like to see in a Warren County noise ordinance.
When task force member Deborah Ferruccio said that she liked the wording of another county’s ordinance in terms of measuring noise levels, Jones described her observation as a perfect start to the meeting and an example of the type of feedback he wanted to hear.
Member Ron Skow of Lake Gaston said that because the task force’s last meeting was in June, a small group of members worked together to review ordinances from other areas, information provided by Kingsberry and other resources they found on their own. Using the existing county ordinance as the foundation, that group developed a draft ordinance to discuss with the full task force.
“There was no intention by anybody to take over creation of an ordinance,” Skow said. “We just felt that since there were two months between June (when the last meeting was held) and August when we had this meeting, we felt we could make some progress and came up with a draft.”
Jones said that he wanted to hear from the group, but it was the suggestion that Kingsberry, instead of the task force, would be writing the draft ordinance to go before the county commissioners that ignited contention.
“I want to be able to take this back to Mr. Kingsberry to be able to say these are the things that the task force wants to see, some characteristics that they want to see ultimately in the draft ordinance,” Jones said.
When task force member Joe Mann asked where the draft ordinance would come from, Jones repeated that Kingsberry, as county attorney, would write it.
“We’re a task force. We’re supposed to be the ones drawing up the ordinance,” Mann interrupted. “He’s (county attorney) supposed to check to make sure it’s legal.”
Mann called the task force a sham, and member Reinaldo Espinosa said that the county would do what it wanted anyway.
“We are the people who have been hired as the professionals, right, to provide feedback to the board,” Jones, who had told everyone to be civil, replied. “Sometimes there’s going to be a disagreement. When there’s a disagreement, the fallback can’t be doing what we want to do. We are going to make professional recommendations that you may or may not agree with.”
Jones repeated that the task force’s feedback would go to Kingsberry.
“What I want to say for this group is you all have been working on this, you’ve been providing feedback,” Jones said. “… Tonight is a critical point because we are going to take that to Mr. Kingsberry. He is the county attorney. He is a professional. … Mr. Kingsberry has been tasked as the facilitator for the group and county attorney as a professional to come up with an ordinance for the board based on this whole process that you all have been a part of. So, there will be another opportunity if you see that (the draft) does not reflect some of the (task force) conversations, you’ll be able to say that publicly, but we and he will give the board want he thinks is the best ordinance.”
“So this whole thing is a sham,” Mann replied. “We’ve been wasting our time for 200 hours.”
Discussion shifted back to task force concerns related to the ordinance itself. Members disagreed on whether to rely solely on decibel meter readings to determine what is too loud or to include measures related to how noise impacts the daily lives of people who live near its source. Members questioned where the decibel meter reading should be taken: at the source of the noise or at a property line. The task force also discussed the need to ensure that law enforcement officers assigned the task of enforcing the noise ordinance have an adequate number of decibel measuring devices and receive related training.
Ferruccio returned the conversation to whether the group would be able to give feedback about the draft ordinance before it is submitted to the county commissioners.
“We appreciate your trying to put all our ideas into a draft I assume we get to look at again and give our input back to you a second time,” she said.
“… That’s what we’ll figure out,” Jones said. “I think that at some point we definitely will have to have you guys come back together to look at the draft.”
Ferruccio said that the task force should be able to review the draft ordinance because it will be assumed that members agree with the draft that is presented before the public to the county commissioners.
“We want our county to have a fair and just noise ordinance that protects us down the road for years to come. That’s why I feel like we should be able to see whatever the draft that Mr. Kingsberry and you guys decide on,” she said.
Jones told the task force that work on the draft ordinance will now be in Kingsberry’s hands.
“ I hope he is able to get something together by either maybe September or early October,” Jones said.
Task force member Daphine Herring said that the group was charged with developing a draft ordinance, and the county should study the draft it developed instead of writing a new one.
“I thought the meeting we had today was to take the (task force’s) ordinance and go step-by-step through it again … to come to an agreement,” she said. “… I don’t understand how you could just say, ‘we’re going to go back, we’re going to formulate it and let you know.’ I personally take that an offense because I feel like we really and truly got a lot of information put together in this one.”
Herring again said that the meeting should have focused on allowing all members of the task force to review the draft ordinance to reach an agreement instead of having the county attorney write a new draft.
Jones replied that he did not think that Kingsberry’s draft would be a re-write and said that the task force had provided good feedback, which the county attorney would use in preparing a draft ordinance. He noted that it would be fine for the group to review the draft ordinance.
“I don’t want anybody to think we did not value your input,” Jones said.
He repeated that the purpose of the meeting was to gather information for the county attorney to prepare a draft ordinance.
“Mr. Kingsberry is our county attorney. He is the professional,” Jones said. “We don’t draft ordinances and legislations by a lay group, right? … We are taking information. He is a professional and will bring back what that ordinance looks like. … He has to balance what your input is with his professional expertise and judgment for the county overall.”
Several task force members began to grumble among themselves, and Mann repeated that the task force was a sham before walking out of the meeting.
Ferruccio, acting in the role of peacemaker, said that the problem was that task force members believed that their work had been in vain.
Jones said that the group had a valid point in wanting to review the draft ordinance before it is submitted to the county commissioners, but said that a disagreement over its wording may not prevent it from being submitted to the board.
On Aug. 14, Skow emailed a statement to Jones, Kingsberry, county commissioners and other county officials expressing disappointment over the handling of the meeting and a general feeling among task force members that the group’s work was being tossed aside. He stated that he believed the task force was given the assignment to develop a noise ordinance.
“Having the county attorney become the sole author of the ordinance might very well leave the members of the task force feeling as though their ideas and input are worthless,” Skow stated. “This option was stated at least three times before the end of the 13 August meeting.”
He also noted that he did not like to hear the task force members described as laymen during the meeting.
“At the time it didn’t occur to me that your opinion of the non-government employees is like a church congregation of which the reverend or priest is the sole decision maker,” Skow stated. “Actually, without the laymen of a church, there is no church, and the reverend or priest would wind up would wind up looking for another paying job.”
He added that he believed that a county attorney may not be the best person to write an ordinance because it could be filled with legal language that the average citizen may not be able to understand or enforce.
Skow said that the meeting concluded with the attitude that the task force had done its job and the “professionals” would handle everything from there.
He took issue with the dismissive and condescending way the county manager had referred to task force members.
“I hope that I have made my point that Warren County has benefited from the people who have volunteered to assist with a variety of tasks,” he said. “To refer to us as “laymen” who do not possess the credentials of a professional, such as the county employees is insulting. Most of us may be older and now retired, but the knowledge and experience gained over our careers should be considered a valuable commodity.”
Jones told the newspaper on Tuesday that there are no plans to present the task force’s draft ordinance to the county commissioners during their Aug. 28 work session.