I know I've promised to post more frequent entries. However, it's clear that every word I write is scrutinized for any way in which it can be used against me. Paranoia? Hardly. The most recent incident was an unbelievable distortion of the content and intention of my words to conclude that I am a racist. It was presented as a public comment during our April 14 Board of Aldermen meeting. By the time the outraged citizen completed his remarks--including asking for my resignation--the damage had been done. The offending comment was not on a public site (Facebook, friends only access) and could have been handled by a personal communication with me--especially if the person was a Facebook friend. Instead, the individuals involved took a remark I made and stretched it with the sole intention of painting me as a racist. There has been no attempt to address me directly and discuss how the remark offended them, and how I may go about rectifying it. I stand by my position; I am not a racist, the remark was not racist, and I'm willing to discuss it with whomever it did offend.
I appreciate that my fellow board members and the city manager took the citizen's remarks in the proper context and have encouraged me to move on.
This is the conclusion of the self-pity portion of the program. Now on to the current state of affairs.
There are so many issues buzzing about in city government these days. The proposed annexation, driving on the Garrison House lawn, the 2011-12 budget, setting the tax rate, and even the A-frame signs and sidewalk obstruction ordinances--which I thought were settled long ago--are all in play at the moment. But the issue that unites them all is the ability (or lack thereof) to get accurate, fact-based information out to the people.
I thought creating a personal alderman website would be an excellent vehicle for keeping interested citizens up to date on what's happening in Southport. But hardly anybody reads the information on my site. I'm hoping the new and vastly improved City of Southport website (now in the construction phase) will go a long way to providing reliable and accurate information to our residents.
I wish I could be more optimistic about the new website solving our communication problems. Unfortunately I've seen far too many cases of first-hand communications being distorted, misunderstood or inadequately processed by the person receiving the information. Case in point: I spoke at the March 11 regarding my concerns about damage being done to the Garrison House lawn and used the waterfront farmer's market as an example because they have allowed cars and pick-up trucks to be driven on the lawn without adequate monitoring. A few minutes later when the public was allowed to comment, the first speaker said we should not get rid of the farmers market.
Huh? I said nothing about getting rid of the waterfront farmers market, but this person was 100% convinced I was. If something that significant was missed while listening live and in person, how can we expect other communications to succeed?
Even written communications are grossly misunderstood. The most important example is the annexation reports. Some readers of the reports thought the City was prepared to spend close to $7 million dollars to install sewer lines and have the newly annexed residents pay 100% of that cost through impact fees. In fact, the report details the City's responsibilities and options if the annexation is carried out, not the definite course of action. The City has the obligation to provide sewer service to annexed residents. The report must inform us (and our citizens) of those obligations and what they would cost. It says nothing about how the extension will be funded, but it does offer some scenarios. If the annexation ordinance is approved, we will have to decide how we will fund the project. Despite giving the proposed annexation residents every indication that we will not force sewer service on them, the myth endures that each newly annexed resident will have to pay upwards of $35,000-50,000 if they become part of Southport.
I've finally learned to not freak out when folks use incorrect or highly distorted information to demonize the City and our elected officials. I hope that concerned citizens will seek out the facts rather than cling to information they should know is false and misleading. The tendency to bend information so that it serves your own purposes is the modus operandi for far too many people. It's as if the real facts will deflate their outrage. In the face of such an attitude, the hope for effective and accurate communication between the government and it's citizens is unrealistic.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't try. All we can do is remain diligent about clarifying the message we, as elected officials, send to the public. We must also listen to be sure the important stuff is getting across to those who need it. That's why direct communication with your elected officials is so important. In a city as small as Southport, there's no reason we can't have one-on-one communication. We may not be able to change each others opinion, but we should be able to understand the facts, benefits and consequences of every issue that comes before the City. Polls, petitions and other gauges of mass public opinion are not needed here. We need to talk to each other.