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Wayne Williams

Wayne Williams

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On Jan.

20, a day after the nation observed Martin Luther King Day and minutes before President Barack Obama took his oath of office, Wayne Williams leaned into his microphone at a meeting of the El Paso County Commission to protest that "the media and political pundits and politicians" preferred to use labels to describe America's political leaders rather than judge them "by the content of their character," as King envisioned in his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech."'The old guy' was Sen.

John McCain," Williams said.

"'The black' was Sen.

Barack Obama.

'The woman' was Sen.

Hillary Clinton.

'The Mormon' was Gov.

Mitt Romney."Never mind that the press and the politocracy never called Obama "the black," McCain "the old guy," and so on.

Why was Williams taking the public's time to weigh in on a topic that was none of the county's business?Because he can.

Comments by Elected Officials is an agenda item at every county commission meeting, and that's when commissioners and other county officials hold forth on any topic they choose for as long as they want.A review of audio files of 2009 county commission meetings, archived on the county Web site, found that most of the remarks are about county business.Commissioners Dennis Hisey and Sallie Clark stick pretty close to their county knitting.

But the others on the five-member panel — Williams, Jim Bensberg and Amy Lathen — are less restrained.Big chunks of Comments by Elected Officials are devoted to kibitzing on the activities of other governments.

Bensberg provided regular updates this spring on the progress of a state measure to deny the use of public lands to expand Piñon Canyon, a Fort Carson maneuver site southeast of Pueblo.

Clark did the same for plans by Colorado Springs School District 11 to shutter some elementary schools, while Lathen, Williams and Bensberg made a punching bag of federal stimulus spending.County commissioners have no control over the federal budget, District 11 or Piñon Canyon, though all three issues have local impact.Williams has encouraged voters to oust Colorado's U.S.

senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, for voting for the federal stimulus package, and added Gov.

Bill Ritter to his hit list for appointing Bennet.

Local Democrats in the state Legislature — Sen.

John Morse and Reps.

Michael Merrifield and Dennis Apuan — were criticized repeatedly."We're doing our level best to communicate something that we think is of interest or might spark discussion in another area," Bensberg said.

"I believe it's appropriate to communicate with your public and encourage, not discourage, debate on current issues, whether they are national, state or local."Not everyone sees it that way.

After Lathen's opinion essay about the federal budget was published on The Gazette's editorial page last month, a letter-writer complained that she has enough to worry about with the county budget.

Other writers praised Lathen.Chantell Taylor, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, said a 2007 ruling in a Denver-area case found that electioneering in a taxpayer-funded forum such as a county commissioners' meeting was legal as long as the comments were incidental to the main purpose of the meeting."I don't think there's anything illegal going on here," Taylor said.

"Whether they're taking advantage of their freedoms and their position of power to make these comments is a different issue."Williams said his only standard for commenting on an issue is whether it has "an impact on the citizens of this county.""This county is part of the U.S.," he said of his Inauguration Day remarks.

"It's appropriate to comment on what happened in the U.S."Williams said off-topic remarks can serve to "promote camaraderie" and "encourage a collegial atmosphere."But commission meetings are paid for by the county's taxpayers, and they are routinely attended by staffers and elected officials.

A ballpark figure for the combined annual salaries of the county employees at any given commission meeting is $1 million, including the commissioners' $87,300 salaries, and there are about 94 meetings per year.

Assuming they all work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, and waste five minutes at each commission meeting uttering or listening to irrelevancies, the cost to the taxpayers is about $4,000 a year.In a county budget of more than $230 million, it's a pittance.

But every dollar counts.In the state Legislature, speakers who stray from the issue at hand are liable to get a scolding from the Senate president, House speaker or committee chairperson whose job is to keep the conversation on point.Bensberg, the county commission chairman, has the authority to rein in wandering speakers.

But he said relevance cop is not his role."I don't want to be, as chairman, a censor of what my fellow commissioners say to the public at a board meeting," he said.—Contact the writer at 476-1654.
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