By Richard Sullins | firstname.lastname@example.org
A proposal from Chairman Kirk Smith to add an eighth seat on the Lee County Board of Commissioners ran into a headwind of opposition on Monday night.
Smith, a Republican, had recently attended a meeting of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners that was hosted in Cabarrus County and learned that Cabarrus has a 10th grade student seated as a non-voting, ex officio member of its Board of Commissioners to provide input and feedback and to represent the views of young people in the county.
Smith said adding a similar seat to Lee County’s board, as well as the Parks and Recreation Commission, would be a good way to expose young people to the mechanics of government and interest more of them in getting involved at an earlier age.
The county has had a Young Commissioners program since 2013, which became chartered in 2017. Dr. Bill Stone, Lee County’s extension director, leads the program in leadership development and civic engagement.
The commissioners approved the creation of a Youth Council in January that would “foster the development of responsible leadership amongst youth through involvement in community affairs and in decision-making processes at all levels of government.”
Smith’s proposal would have gone well beyond the roles of either the Young Commissioners or the Youth Council by creating an eighth seat on the board that presumably would be a full member aside from not having a vote.
That didn’t sit well with Democrat Robert Reives Sr., a veteran of more than 30 years on the board.
“This is not a reality show,” he said. “I am absolutely opposed to adding that individual on this board. It would have been reasonable for you to have a discussion with the Democrats before you took it upon yourself to just stick it on the agenda and ask for a vote. We are elected officials and you are proposing – it sounds to me like a 10th grader certainly is a child – to come in here with his or her parents’ ideas and wishes, not to mention their party’s.”
“We are talking about having a 10th grader coming in here and interjecting whatever they want and carrying away whatever they can, and not be responsible for it at all,” he continued. “It makes me very uncomfortable. You go to a meeting and come back with an idea and place it on the agenda with no insights on who would make the final call on how the process works. I don’t know what the selection process would be. Do you think that’s reasonable?”
“Well, I did text you a message with my intentions a few weeks ago but never got a response,” Smith responded.
“That should have told you something,” Reives answered.
Smith said the idea wasn’t intended to be a partisan one, adding that there’s a “disconnect between our generations.” But few issues coming before the board that relate to the makeup of its membership can be viewed strictly through a nonpartisan lens. It was just one year ago when Republicans and Democrats on the board clashed over the drawing of the county’s electoral districts.
Vice Chair Arianna Lavallee, a Republican, read a prepared resolution to authorize the creation of a young commissioner position that said, in part, “THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, The Lee County Board of Commissioners appoint a non-voting seat on the Board of Commissioners, to a member of the Lee County 4-H Young Commissioners or the Lee County Youth Council, in order to add a youth perspective on issues coming before the Board.”
But the document contained no specifics on how the member would be chosen, when the term of office would start, how long it would last, what the duties of this individual would be, or what level of participation would be expected. That lack of specifics that gave several commissioners heartburn.
Democratic Commissioner Cameron Sharpe asked Stone to speak about the potential value to a community’s youth like the Young Commissioner Smith was suggesting. Stone said he believed providing nonpartisan experience is good because it broadens a student’s exposure to community issues and how they are addressed, but giving more thought to how they might be selected would add rigor to the program and make the experience more valuable.
“Any time you can get young people involved, that’s a positive experience and we stress through the Young Commissioners program to be as nonpartisan as possible,” Stone said. “Our initiative is designed not to be partisan or politically driven. But I can certainly understand how there could be some questions over what you are talking about here and can also see that it could even become a political issue. I also recognize that there could be concerns about how that individual might be selected and the role that they would play on this board. I think those things certainly need to be clarified before a decision might be made to go forward.”
Stone, who has led the Young Commissioners program since its inception, offered to serve as a resource for the commissioners in further discussions to define the scope the position might have.
Reives conceded that student members can benefit from serving on appointed committees like Parks and Recreation, but said giving a student membership rights on the county’s governing body, even with the best of intentions, can lead to problems.
“When that happens, then you not only have that child to deal with. You also have the parents to deal with,” he said. “I think it’s just unreasonable to put a child in that position. They can learn in other ways.”
Democratic Commissioner Mark Lovick said he was happy to discuss the issue at a future meeting, but he wanted to see more details about how it might work.
“I’d like for us to see how Cabarrus County went about putting a young person on their board and do some research on that,” he said.
That was agreeable to Republican Commissioner Andre Knecht, who suggested asking Stone to study the issue in more detail and return with a possible outline of a program at some future point should the commissioners wish to consider it further.
Lavallee expressed her thoughts that the issue needs more study and by a unanimous vote, the matter was tabled indefinitely.