I recently added coverage of Franklin County to my duties at The Missourian.
To say I’m a veteran of covering county government would be an understatement. This is the fifth paper and fourth state where my beats have included county commission meetings. In fact, it’s not even the first Franklin County I’ve covered.
My first impression of the Franklin County, Mo., commission is it works fast. The first meeting I covered on Tuesday, Nov. 24, had an imposing-looking agenda.
But Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker worked through it quickly, giving a bit of information on each agenda item along the way. Even with a speech at the end of the meeting on the county’s mask mandate, the meeting barely clocked in at more than 20 minutes.
Since the commission met two days before Thanksgiving, I’m going to figure it meets nearly every week. That is something that’s been the case in most places I’ve lived.
It makes sense that county commissioners meet even during holiday weeks, since they are paid better than city aldermen/council members, who often take off the weeks of major holidays, at least in my previous experience.
That hasn’t always been the case at the county meetings I’ve covered.
My first commission, in 2006 in Erath County, Texas, I only covered briefly because I didn’t stay at the Stephenville Empire-Tribune very long. But one thing I did grow to love was the Texas title for the head commissioner — county judge.
I liked this title because it reminded me of the Paul McCartney and Wings song “Band on the Run.” Like in the song, the county judges I covered might have held a grudge against me, but we seemed able to work it out.
The county judge title continued when I moved on to the Odessa American in West Texas, where I covered county meetings for most of my five years there.
Odessa also is where I went back to get my college degree, which led to an interesting moment in my government class. Our professor was telling the class about the county judge title in Texas, saying the “judge” part was actually ceremonial with no real judicial power anymore.
Being the know-it-all I am, I corrected him. The county judge, at least in Ector County, where we lived, did indeed hear court cases. It was an interesting position in that it had judicial, legislative and executive aspects to it.
Eventually, I moved on to Cobb County, Ga., which was a unique county to cover. The county had more than 700,000 residents, with more than half living outside cities.
Coming from West Texas, I was used to the unincorporated county basically being the wild, wild west. But Cobb County, located just north of Atlanta, was like a large city, with good water and sewer and park systems. And the county chairman (they don’t call him the judge, or her, since a woman recently was elected to the position) was like the mayor.
Cobb County also is where I noticed some trends among county commissions. They usually have a man on them who is now an anti-tax crusader, even though he works or previously worked either for the government or in a business like airlines or banks that is heavily subsidized by the government. They also tend to have had a gentleman who seems to be a little, past his prime, let’s say, but doesn’t want to give the gig up.
(Note: I’m not saying that is the case with our county commission in Franklin County. I haven’t really been around the members enough to make any personal judgments.)
Well, the Cobb County commissioners threw any pretense about being stewards of the taxpayers out shortly after I left. They gave $400 million in taxpayer money to the Atlanta Braves to get them to build a new baseball stadium there, without even putting it to a public vote.
By then I was on to covering the Franklin County, Wash., commission. The previous states I’d lived in had four district commissioners plus an elected chairman (or judge in Texas), but this county only had three.
The three commissioners would alternate being commission chairman, with each serving for a year. Of course, the one who was chairman thought he had special powers, only to downplay the powers as soon as it was his turn to give up the gavel.
That reminds me of another trend I noticed in other states. The vast majority of commissioners I covered were Republicans, but that did not stop them from having rivalries with each other.
Of all the public boards I’ve covered, the Franklin County, Wash., commission was the most painful. Its meetings dragged on like no other. Most governing bodies have their closed session discussions either before or after the main meeting, but these guys would kick the public out multiple times during the meeting.
They worked out of a beautiful old courthouse, but there was only so much of it I could explore before the closed sessions got tiresome. Luckily, like most county commissions, the meetings were during the day, so at least I wasn’t there into the night.
One similarity between Franklin counties in Washington and Missouri is they both have tributes to the county’s namesake. But the statue of Benjamin Franklin sitting outside the old courthouse in Union is nicer than what they had in Pasco, Wash., which was just a small bust of old Ben.
So I look forward to making new memories of reporting on county government. Especially if the meetings continue to move quickly!