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Perception should help locate planning workshop
Courier editorial
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The controversial Liberty Countywide Planning Workshop once again became a topic of conversation last week.
Local leaders gathered Wednesday at the Liberty County Performing Arts Center to provide progress updates for the priorities they established during the March 2012 Liberty Countywide Planning Workshop.
Some people say the workshop, wherein leaders look at the community from a future-oriented, bigger-picture perspective, is a waste of time. We’ve seen it is a forum for stakeholders to share issues they face in the name of collaboration to create solutions and make the area a better place to live, work and play.
But that doesn’t mean that the event is without its weaknesses.
Last year, the University of Georgia Fanning Institute facilitated the three-day countywide workshop at St. Simons Island, and one of the facilitators’ key suggestions were to make sure there is accountability for the committees created.
They set a six-month mark for touching base, which would have fallen around late September. While Wednesday’s meeting was about four-months delayed, we commend the group for following up within the year for what seems to be the first time in recent years.
There are working groups for image building, retail development, beautification and transportation, and the summaries provided by each indicate that though the groups are advancing at different rates, they are taking steps toward solutions.
At the end of the meeting, County Administrator Joey Brown also asked attendees how to revive participation in the planning workshops, which he said has “dwindled.”
Why? Cost? Time? Apathy? Frustration?
The overall cost last year — including fees and lodging for three University of Georgia Fanning Institute facilitators — was estimated at $16,000, and registration fees were $275 per participant.
No single entity shoulders the cost to participate, but each entity typically pays for each of its representatives through their travel budgets. If participants elected to stay overnight, those lodging fees typically would be shouldered by the entity as well.
The school system once again is discussing teacher furloughs and has voted to close one elementary school, and it also raised its millage rate last year. The city and county also joined in raising millage rates — indicators that each of the three entities are strapped for operational cash and have been forced to go to already-strapped taxpayers to operate.
Sending $16,000 from local entities’ budgets into a neighboring county surely is a foolish decision to make in such an economic climate, and it would not bode well for public perception.
The city of Hinesville and board of commissioners also have coming workshops planned to take place within county limits. Fortunately, leaders on Wednesday indicated by a show of hands that they agree, and we’re glad to see public perception take the lead.
Brown alluded to the Performing Arts Center and the Richmond Hill City Center as possible venues for the retreat, which should be either in late April or early May.
Some still asserted that holding the meeting in Richmond Hill creates the same public-perception issues as staying at a beach resort, but even holding the event in Bryan County eliminates the need for overnight stays and some meals.
From the calls and comments we’ve received on the topic, the public dislikes the idea from both an economic standpoint and because they see the beach stays as veiled vacations. Removing the beach from the equation will help eliminate the assumption that our leaders are sneaking in sun sessions between workshops.
Midway Mayor Dr. Clemontine Washington brought up another great point about the time associated with the event: It requires heavy dedication.
Last year, the workshop began Wednesday afternoon and did not wrap until lunchtime Friday. Participants were asked to spend two nights away from home and the equivalent of two full days out of work over a three-day period.
A potential solution emerged Wednesday that would bridge the gap: asking attendees to dedicate either two days back to back, possibly with a first session running afternoon and evening and the second  the following day — but no overnight stays required.  That would reduce the cost of food as well. Brown alluded to the fact that day sessions in either venue would not require full breakfast service, as attendees would be expected to make their own accommodations as if it was a normal workday.
Last year’s workshop included at least two breakfasts, one lunch, one dinner and several snack opportunities — expenses that would be dramatically reduced if overnight stays were eliminated.
Brown also said the group will move away from using Fanning Institute facilitators as a cost-saving measure.
Given the community’s current fiscal outlook, it’s clear that holding the line is a requirement. As the details become finalized, we hope to see conservative minds prevail so more participants can weigh in on the obstacles and opportunities that face the county.

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