|Photo by John Muuss, photographic artist|
During my 2 years as an elected official I've had the pleasure of listening to many citizens in the act of expressing their opinion on a number of subjects. This experience has been both enlightening and disheartening. While input from the people I represent is critically important to me and my role as an alderman, the anger associated with it is wearing me down. And it doesn't have to be that way, but my experience tells me that it's always the case regardless of the subject at hand.
Two recent public disagreements provide exquisite examples of the type of discourse that is needlessly nasty. A few months ago the board of aldermen heard a proposal from a group of citizens who want to erect a memorial in tribute to the many Southport folks who've spent their lives working on the water. We have a rich maritime history and the memorial seeks to spotlight the unsung mariners. The group is a mix of natives, longtime residents and relative newbies, but they all have a passion for our local heritage.
The plan was to place the memorial at the present site of the Whittler's Bench at Waterfront Park, but the group primarily wanted to know if their idea was worth pursuing. The board recommended that the group get public opinion on the memorial. The opinions came in at warp speed. Facebook, letters to the editor, and public comments at board meetings were all filled with angry, outraged folks who demanded that the Whittler's Bench be left just the way it is.
OK. Fine. No problem. The folks spearheading this worthwhile project just wanted to get some public feedback. Replacing the bench was just a suggestion. The Whittler's Bench is rich with history and lives in the memories of those who grew up in Southport, so let's just leave it where it is. Was the anger, name-calling, and vilification of those who haven't lived in Southport more than 40 years really necessary in order to deliver that message?
The Board of Aldermen have been trying to move the Southport Visitor's Center to the Garrison House ever since the property was acquired from the federal government in 2004. My first action as an alderman reversed that resolution, then I spent almost 2 years trying to see if there was a viable alternative for the use of the Garrison House. After much discussion, deliberation and hard work, the Ft. Johnston Committee decided that moving the visitor's center was the best option. I am on the Ft. Johnston Committee and I agree 100% with our recommendation.
Almost immediately after the board vote to accept the recommendation, visitor center volunteers began to quit and the usual social media and other public means of expression cried foul. Only a lower form of life--or someone who has no regard for the history of Southport--would even suggest moving the visitor's center. They are horrible human beings who deserve nothing less than our complete disgust and scorn.
So...why is moving the visitor's center such a monumental event? Is this really an issue that demands rallying the masses and taking to the streets with pitchforks and torches? Isn't there a way to discuss this without tearing each other's throats out and screaming at the top of our vocal range?
I wish I could confess that I'm exaggerating about the public reactions to these relatively insignificant events. Ok, maybe a bit. (NOTE: the Whittler's Bench event is insignificant because its life was never in jeopardy. The reason for keeping it is significant.). The anger and contentiousness was palpable in our community, and folks were labeled as Southport sludge when they did not deserve it.
Both situations have relatively happy endings. The memorial group is exploring a number of locations that are not the Whittler's Bench, and our new Tourism & Economic Development Director is working with the remaining volunteers, the Southport Historical Society and others to create a wonderful 1st stop for our visitors in the Garrison House.
I suppose it's possible to calm down, get information on whatever is making you upset, then discuss your concerns with those in a position to make the final decision about your complaint. But that's not the way of public discourse in our country these days, so why should I expect it to be otherwise in Southport?
Maybe because we're all better than that.