Our Voice: Despite ruling, county leaders can still cooperate

Although Benton and Franklin county commissioners have discovered they no longer can make joint decisions outside their own county boundaries, that is no reason to give up on the spirit of cooperation that has lasted for decades. If the commissioners want to continue to meet and work together, they can find a way.

We suggest they try.

Earlier this year, Franklin commissioners unexpectedly became concerned about the long-standing practice of gathering jointly with Benton County and asked the Franklin County Prosecutor to investigate the legality of the meetings. As it turns out, the state Attorney General’s Office said that commissioners cannot vote or take other action outside the county they represent.

This state opinion, however, should not be used as an excuse by commissioners to quit discussing issues that can be tackled more efficiently together than apart. There are ways around this obstacle if they get creative and are willing to put in a little extra effort.

The state opinion notes the commissioners can still meet together even if there is a quorum, as long as they don’t make any decisions while away from their home county. Franklin Commission Chairman Bob Koch said that they could “go over” to Benton County, but because they cannot take action “it really wouldn’t be beneficial to meet.”

But just because a vote needs to be delayed until it can be done legally in their own counties does not mean a joint discussion should be avoided. A lot of good can come out of meeting together, even if the vote is taken later. In addition, commissioners from both sides of the river can meet using video conferencing. This means they could still discuss bicounty matters together while never leaving their home base.

A select number of issues, including flood control and creating a library district, are already exemptions to the rule. Perhaps an appeal could be made to the Legislature to have other topics approved for joint discussion. It would be worth looking into.

The title, “Benton-Franklin” appears over and over again as a designation for a number of community programs that are stronger because they have support from both sides of the river. A quick look at websites for both counties shows a listing of several bicounty agencies, including the Benton-Franklin Health District. In fact, there are agencies listed on the Franklin County website that link directly to Benton County’s website, such as the Benton-Franklin Office of Public Defense and the Benton-Franklin Juvenile Justice Center.

The state has said the commissioners must take action in their home county, but that does not have to limit their cooperation. With such an entrenched connection to one another, they surely can figure out a way to continue to work together. They just have to want to do it.