For Carolyn George, there was no big epiphany or wake-up call. She just knew she had to do something.
“I’ve been a civic slacker for long enough that I thought, ‘You know, it’s really just a walk up the street’,” George said after attending her first Adams County Commissioners meeting. “‘Why don’t I go and see what’s happening here at the county level?'”
County commissioners say we need more Carolyns.
Over the last few months, ABC27 drove 330.6 miles to get to Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Perry, and York County meetings. We interviewed any commissioner who would go on camera (17 out of 24 did). The big question: why do the major decisions in all these counties, and your chances to go to those meetings and weigh in during public comment, happen weekday mornings when you’re likely at work?
Most of the commissioners we talked to say no one’s ever asked.
What do these guys (and women) do, anyway?
“Often, I would be asked the question, ‘Well, what is a county commissioner?” Lebanon County Commissioner William Ames said.
Lancaster County Commissioner Craig Lehman says for a while, his own father-in-law didn’t really understand his job description.
Each county has three commissioners who are in charge of millions of tax dollars. That’s your money, your elections, some of your roads and bridges, your property values, Children and Youth Services, the county jail, 911, emergency management, and services for the elderly, to name a few.
“These are important in your life,” Adams County Commissioner Marty Qually said. “Maybe not now, but in a crisis is when you want to know county government is working for you.”
So if these are such big issues, why daytime meetings instead of the evening meetings school boards and municipalities frequently hold?
Either way, you pay
“We certainly are not having meetings during the day to negate transparency,” Adams County Commissioner Randy Phiel said. “It’s basically the best way for us to do business.”
County commissioner meetings often rely on courthouse security and other county employees who need to be present for board presentations. Those staff members would need to work late for night meetings.
“So it’s an additional expense to the taxpayers,” Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz said. “Which is fine, if they were well-attended meetings.”
That’s when we picked up on pattern.
“In my first term, we did change our meeting schedule to include evening meetings,” York County Commissioner Chris Reilly said.
“Nobody was showing up,” Perry County Commissioner Steve Naylor said.
“I mean, we would be lucky if we had one or two people,” Franklin County Commissioner David Keller said.
“People seem to be so busy in the evenings,” Perry County Commissioner Brenda Benner said.
“I have three kids, all in sports,” Adams County Commissioner Marty Qually said, “so evenings are difficult for me. I’ve heard that from other people.”
All eight counties we analyzed for this report have tried some kind of evening meeting format. Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lebanon, Perry, and York Counties decided low turnout made it tough to justify the cost.
Your say over your money, safety, and community
Lancaster County has held more than 50 evening meetings over the last 14 years in various locations to make sure everyone had an opportunity to attend. The meetings aren’t packed, but commissioners say they do pay off.
“We have a big budget,” Lancaster County Commissioner Josh Parsons said. “It’s a big county, we have a big operation. We want to make sure we’re hearing from constituents. We have to make sure we’re addressing people’s problems.”
“Sometimes that input is the difference between making a good decision and maybe making a decision that isn’t as good as it could be,” Lancaster County Commissioner Craig Lehman said.
Commissioner Dennis Stuckey pointed out that four evening meetings per year may not sound like much, but this system allows the commissioners to make sure they’re not taking people away from the school board and municipality evening meetings.
Dauphin County is considering a similar setup. It’s the only county in which none of the commissioners (Jeff Haste, Mike Pries, and George Hartwick) would answer our questions. But they did make their chief clerk available, and he had some advice for the public.
“Write your commissioners,” Chief Clerk Chad Saylor said, “email – all those are great kind of ways to give us feedback.”
After we started asking questions, Cumberland County leaders said we got them thinking about making changes.
“We’ve come up with an idea,” Cumberland County Commissioner Vince DiFilippo said. “Instead of having a formal meeting in the evenings, have maybe more or less a town hall concept [in the evenings.]”
The goal would be to focus on the issues you want to discuss.
“Representative democracy, it only works if there’s two-way communication,” Cumberland County Commissioner Jim Hertzler said.
“We’re taking a bigger chunk of their paychecks every year,” Cumberland County Commissioner Gary Eichelberger said, “so it’s important they know what they’re getting for that.”
If the commissioners want to see how the evening forum idea works, all they need to do is look at Adams County which holds four per year in various locations.
“I like to see people get involved in government to know exactly what is going on,” Adams County Commissioner Jim Martin said.
Remember Carolyn George from the beginning of the story? At the end of her first meeting, a commissioner helped her solve a problem. She says that could be you, and she hopes eventually it is.
“The easiest place for people to make their views and needs known is at the county level,” George said. “Regardless of your politics, being an engaged, informed citizen is ultimately a nonpartisan activity.”
Advice if you want to be like Carolyn (and have say in the big decisions)
You’re busy. It’s hard to get to meetings. And the county commissioners we spoke to say they’re very accessible through phone and email.
But elected leaders tell us public comment is often the most effective way to make sure there’s action when it comes to an issue important to you. When you speak at a meeting, it goes on public record, and that can create more pressure for your concern to get addressed. You can also learn more about the services that affect you and where your money is going if you attend meetings.
Some people take their kids to public meetings and make it a family event (and a real-life civics lesson). A group of Lower Paxton Township neighbors rotate meeting attendance and report what happened back to the group. Several counties, municipalities, and school boards now record their meetings so you can catch up later. You always have the option of reviewing meeting minutes, but it can take more than a month for those to be published and they don’t always give you the feel of what happened during the meeting.
No matter which route you choose, it is important to know the key players. Click here to look up your county commissioners, learn how to contact them, and find out when the meet.
What does your elected leader think about all this?
All the public leaders we spoke with were incredibly generous with their time. We think it’s important you hear what they have to say, so we’re posting their extended interviews below.
In Adams County, we spoke with Commissioners Jim Martin, Randy Phiel, and Marty Qually.
In Cumberland County, we talked to Commissioners Vince DiFilippo, Gary Eichelberger, and Jim Hertzler.
In Dauphin County, we spoke to Chief Clerk Chad Saylor.
In Franklin County, we talked to Commissioner David Keller.
In Lancaster County, we spoke with Commissioners Joshua Parsons, Dennis Stuckey, and Craig Lehman.
In Lebanon County, we talked to Commissioners William (Bill) Ames, Jo Ellen Litz, and Robert Phillips.
In Perry County, we spoke to Commissioners Brenda Benner, Stephen Naylor, and Paul Rudy.
In York County, we talked to Commissioner Chris Reilly.
We also spoke with Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.