Liberty County residents will have easier access to this year’s annual Liberty County Planning Workshop, as the event will take place in Midway.
Those who want to weigh in on their community’s issues and future development still will have a hard time, though.
County Administrator Joey Brown said the workshop is open to the public for listening purposes but not to participate. Those who come but are not registered, however, will not be furnished with written materials or provided food.
Liberty County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette also spoke about the event, which typically draws together the cities of Hinesville, Flemington, Riceboro, Midway and Walthourville; the Hinesville Downtown Development Authority; the Liberty County Development Authority; Liberty Regional Medical Center; the board of education and Savannah Technical College; the chamber of commerce and convention and visitors’ bureau; the library and Fort Stewart.
“We can only host so many concerns in one city,” Lovette said. “If you get 1,000 people in a room, then you’ll have 800 ideas.”
The event is May 30-31 at Coastal Electric Cooperative in Midway. There is a $110 registration cost per participant.
The annual sessions are a hot-button issue for residents and officials.
Last year’s workshop was at the King & Prince Resort on St. Simons Island, and its registration fee was $275 per person. The total cost was an estimated $16,000, which was covered by the registration fees.
Typically, each entity pays for its representatives to attend, which means no single government shoulders the entire cost of the event, but taxpayers still are paying.
The meetings aim to gather representatives from each municipality and government entity for dialogue on the area’s needs, but many residents perceive the retreats to St. Simons and Jekyll islands as thinly-veiled vacation boondoggles.
Citing budget and perception concerns, Brown asked officials this year during a mid-year countywide update whether they preferred to meet within the county or off-site.
“Participation in our workshops has been waning some,” Brown said in January. “Early times, when we first started these 10 years ago, we had just basically all the elected officials were in there from the municipalities and the other agencies, and I guess my question to you is how do we get back there? What has caused the non-participation?”
Last year, 62 people registered for the event and all but five attended, said Debbie Whitehurst, secretary to Brown and the county commissioners.
One factor that is hard to account for, however, is whether attendees participate in the entire session or only choose select portions. The Courier has observed in years past that some people do not participate in the entire workshop.
In January, Midway Mayor Dr. Clemontine Washington suggested the three-business-day span is too much time. Flemington City Councilwoman Gail Evans cited concerns about the public’s perception on spending.
Those comments were among the reasons why this year’s meeting is scheduled within the county.
Whitehurst said they anticipate about 85 participants this year, but the venue will have some space restrictions.
“We’re really, really hoping that people come out and get involved,” Lovette said, referring to declining participation of elected officials and government staff members.
Lovette admits he is among those who are apprehensive about holding the workshop within the county, where administrative officials say participants are prone to distractions. But good things have originated there, like Liberty College and Career Academy and Savannah Technical College’s Liberty Campus, he added.
“I have seen the fruit of those workshops off-site,” Lovette said. “I think they’re worth the money, but I also think it’s worth trying here … I’m optimistic about it.”