The National Association of Counties (NACo) annual convention each summer is usually held in an exciting place such as Hawaii or Las Vegas, and taxpayers sometimes question whether the county commissioners who attend those conferences are going for the knowledge or for the fun.
However, this year there should be no question about that since the convention is in Ohio – the place John Denver once sang was “like being nowhere at all,” and of which he also remarked, “I spent a week there one day.”
Despite that less than enticing lyrical description of the locale, three Democratic Guilford County commissioners – Skip Alston, Carlvena Foster and Kay Cashion – are making the trip this year on the taxpayer’s dime to attend the conference in Columbus Ohio, which runs from July 21 to July 24.
Alston’s estimated expenses, at $1,935, are typical for the cost of commissioners making this trip: Registration is $505, his hotel stay is $895 and round-trip airfare is $535. The expenses for Cashion and Foster also total just over $1900 each for the conference.
Alston, who’s been on many of these trips during his two decades on the board, said he and other commissioners get a great deal out of the conferences and he added that, in the end, the public benefits from better government.
Commissioners have been attending conferences for years and talking about how citizens benefit. However, there are very few things that they’ve been able to point to and say, “This decisively is something from a NACo conference that improved Guilford County government.” About eight years ago, one commissioner did learn at a conference about a prescription drug discount card that was available free to residents in all member counties including Guilford County. County officials made that card available to citizens and that did create savings for some.
“It’s about sharing ideas,” Alston said. “You get a chance to bounce ideas off of other people. Whether it’s social services or school issues, all those people have the same problems we have.”
Alston also said the workshops and seminars are often highly relevant to what’s going on in Guilford County.
“You share solutions,” Alston said. “Someone from California may say, ‘This is what we did,’ and you think, ‘Hey, that may work in Guilford County.’ When I go to the NAACP conference, it’s the same thing – we’re looking for ways to solve problems.”
The five-time former chairman of the Board of Commissioners also said a NACo workshop was where he got schooled on the finer points of parliamentary procedure.
“I learned a lot when I was chairman,” Alston said. “I went to one that was called, ‘How to Control an Aggressive Board.’”
Alston said that one came in handy given the board’s cast of colorful characters when he was chairman. Alston didn’t name his longtime foe – former Republican Commissioner Billy Yow – but he may as well have.
Alston also said the relationships formed with other county officials leads to more cooperation among county governments. He said that by participating on various committees, Guilford County commissioners provide input that can shape federal legislation and he added that Cashion was very active on NACo boards and committees. Out of those talks, NACo creates a legislative agenda that calls for changes in federal regulations, funding rules and other changes meant to benefit counties. NACo then uses its collective lobbying power to encourage legislators to make those changes come about.
The schedule for the 2017 conference includes steering committees on many subjects from transportation to public safety to county pension systems and those help counties govern and manage their assets.
Alston, who only rejoined the Board of Commissioners two months ago, isn’t on many NACo committees
Cashion, however, chairs the Arts and Culture Commission and is vice chair of the Justice and Public Safety Steering Committee. She’s also a member of the Resilient Counties Advisory Board, the Telecommunications and Technology Steering Committee and the Large Urban Counties Caucus Steering Committee. That will presumably allow Guilford County’s voice in those areas to be heard.
Foster, a former Guilford County Board of Education member, serves on NACo’s Human Services and Education Steering Committee.
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson is on NACo’s Transportation Steering Committee and Public Lands Steering Committee. However, Branson had a family conflict and is unable to attend this year’s conference.
There’s a full slate of workshops on cutting edge issues on the agenda including cyber security for county governments and the use of big data and artificial intelligence to help meet county goals.
Of course, there will be some fun too as always. The kickoff party will be held one block from the Greater Columbus Convention Center at the North Market in Columbus, at which “more than 30 merchants offer a wide variety of fresh, local, authentic food, many of which will be serving specialties for NACo attendees to enjoy,” and where “A local band will add to the festive atmosphere.”
Those festivities are followed by “NACo Night at the Ballpark,” featuring a baseball game between the Syracuse Chiefs and the Columbus Clippers.
Monday night July 24 – the final night of the conference – is the big blowout party at a venue called “Express Live!” in Columbus, a place where Megadeth performed recently. Megadeth will probably not be the band for the NACo party.
During the conference, there will be a tour of downtown revitalization projects in Columbus – though the most fun-sounding workshop has to be the Friday, July 21 “County Cannabis Roundtable.” (Marijuana is not yet legal in Ohio, so the commissioners and other county officials will presumably only talk about pot but not indulge in its use.)
Throughout the conference, there will be an exhibitor’s hall for vendors to show off their wares – the latest tools for local government.
There will also be a “Tech Town Hall” event, an interactive “mix of presentations and facilitated discussions,” with a focus on the ways counties are using technology to address various topics.
Some workshops are: The Role of Social Media in County Government, Citizen Engagement Enabling a Mobile Workforce, Cloud Environment Software, Protecting Sensitive Data, and Improving Cyber-security through Automation.
There area also workshops that focus on drinking water issues and increasing LGBT sensitivity in county government. Other programs also deal with issues often in the headlines these days: ransom-ware, the opioid epidemic, immigration law and treating the mentally ill who are held in jails. There’s even one on “County Communications and the Challenge of Fighting Fake News.”
There are also workshops on the 2020 census and its importance to counties, and a good deal of them with an emphasis on creating jobs and bringing in other economic development.
Foster said that, as one of the most recently elected commissioners, she’s looking forward to learning what she can in Ohio. Foster won her seat in 2014.
“I still consider myself a new commissioner,” Foster said. “These conferences are addressing some of the same issues we have here in Guilford County.”
Foster said she has gone on similar trips in the past and said it’s helped make her a better commissioner.
“It’s been a benefit to me to get feedback,” she said.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said she’d like to attend more NACo summer conferences, but each year they nearly always conflict with an annual NAACP trip conference she attends.
“It’s always the same week or the week next to it and I don’t want to make two trips like that one right after the other,” she said.
Coleman said that back in 2005 she was looking forward very much to attending the NACo conference in Honolulu but she changed those plans when she caught wind of the fact that the Rhino Times was sending a reporter to watch over the commissioners.
“I was planning to go to Hawaii,” she said.
In fact, in 2005, the Rhino Times had been told by county staff at that time that five or six of the commissioners where planning on making that trip until they figured out there would be a lot of blowback from the citizens and the media. In the end, just two county commissioners went to Honolulu.
Coleman said she has never been to Hawaii and to this day she holds the Rhino Times responsible for keeping her from seeing the islands in 2005.