Monday, August 20, 2007


One of the biggest complaints people have with government at any level is simply that no one pays any attention to what the people think. And by the people, I mean everyone, but the wealthy and business types. Oh, and, of course, government officials and politicians listen to each other. Us, well who cares what we think, they'll just tell us what we ought to think

Hell, I'm not even talking about the big stuff like Iraq or global warming. We know the powers that be could care less about what we think. That's obvious.

Just the little things. Like who goes out and voices support for absentee landlords to let their properties deteriorate and become eyesores, health hazards and crime magnets. No one. Everyone wants something done. I don't know about your town, but not much happening here on that front.
But no reason to generalize, lets look at some real places and people.

In Bay Lake, Florida citizens have complained forever about lack of adequate fire protection. The closest manned fire station is 22 miles away. That hasn't sat well for a long time with folks who figure their places would be burned down by the time someone showed up.

"My family came to Florida in 1822. I'm a cracker," resident Dave Barker told local station WFTV. "We're paying as much as everybody else and getting nothing and being told right to our face, you're not gonna get nothing."

What the hell is old Dave supposed to do about it?

By the way Bay Lake has a perfectly good fire station with a perfectly good fire truck, but no firefighters.

Local authorities now think maybe they'll get something together in a year or two.

Did I mention the Lake County Commission will hold a public hearing on September 11 to raise the county's fire protection fee from $171 a year per homeowner to $197? Residents of Bay Lake plan to be there.

Then there is the complaint the GOP crowd likes to crow about - taxes. It's the big hit in every national election. But you know where the real tax complaints are? Down at the county level. And it doesn't seem to matter who is in charge.

Take Davis County, Utah. Could their be a more "red" place? You'd figure taxes would be taken care of, right? Wrong.

Last December folks found themselves with a sudden and unannounced 37 percent tax increase. It left many wondering how to make ends meet.

"I should make as much money as you guys are," Gordon Tyler told Davis County commissioners. "I'm a senior citizen on a fixed income - I've paid my dues but I fear my wife and I will be forced to move."

The Salt Lake Tribune points out that when Commissioner Louenda Downs mentioned how the higher property valuations were related to the booming real estate market, Tyler didn't buy it.

"You're saying the housing market is great, but mortgage companies are filing bankruptcies and sales are falling," Tyler said.

Bountiful (a town in the county) resident Jack Billings spoke of an extra half lot he owns that has no improvements on it.

"Last year the value on that half lot went up 458 percent," Billings said. "On a fixed income you feel crowded, I mean really crowded. I hope you folks feel a little crowded now."

Of course, all this is nothing compared to what happened to Jan Saleh who went to city hall in Patterson, New Jersey to complain about his tax bill. The people we elect to listen to us decided on another tact. They had him arrested for disorderly conduct.

"All I was was a little frustrated," Saleh told the Herald News. "I was angry they wouldn't answer any of my questions ... I was arrested for no reason. To get a treatment like this, to be pushed around and put handcuffs on so hard."

That same paper reports, "Saleh's arrest comes weeks after more than 100 residents packed the City Council chambers to complain about their latest tax bills. Some residents saw their third-quarter payment at least double from what they paid last year and many fear they will lose their homes because they can't make mortgage payments."

"It's not about day loss, it's about the harassment and showing everyone: 'If you're going to open your mouth, this is what you'll get,'" Saleh said.

But wait, don't leave thinking council members there aren't all heart.

City Council President Ken Morris Jr. says he receives up to eight calls daily from angry residents complaining about their new assessments.

"Whenever you have a pocketbook issue, people are going to be emotional about it," Morris told the Herald News.

Oh well! Lesson learned.

Oh, and finally there are the residents of Happy Hills neighborhood in Eunice, Louisiana. On its website, the Mayor describes the town of Eunice thus, "The "HEART" of Acadiana! Eunice is the place to find good friends, good food and good music Right smack dab in the middle of Cajun Country."

While all that may be, the residents of Happy Hills are not, at the moment, to happy with her honor, the mayor.

Local Community activists say the grass needs to be cut, ditches need to be cleaned, roads need to be fixed and playgrounds need to be repaired. Happy Hills which was annexed by Eunice this past year seems, to the folks who live there, to have become a forgotten place.

But the people of Happy Hills really aren't looking for a fight. They're nice people.

George Fisher, who lives in the neighborhood, told KATC he's not looking to attack anyone, instead he's looking for help.

"It shouldn't be a black white thing it should be a people thing. We're asking all citizens to give this council man and mayor a call. You need to get on the phones right now."

"I spoke to Bubba Bourque, the councilman for the first ward and he said he's doing the best he can, and since he's only been on the job seven months, he wants residents to be patient with him."

Personally, now I don't know old Bubba, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for him to take action.

Would you?

The following editorial opinion is from the Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader.

We didn't hear you
City officials need to work harder on communicating with public.

Here we go again.

For the second time in the last couple of weeks, the city of Springfield has found itself in hot water with local residents over road plans, and the culprit — again — is miscommunication.

First there was the rushed effort to approve a new airport road without seeking enough input from some of the most affected landowners. The Missouri Department of Transportation shares much of the blame for that problem.

Now, folks in the Phelps Grove neighborhood are angry over the closing of a road that connects them to the north with Missouri State University. Residents aren't upset the road is closed, just that nobody bothered to tell them about it.

"Unfortunately, we got the cart before the horse," said city traffic engineer Earl Newman. The city wrote a letter to residents but didn't send it before the road was closed.

Pattern emerging

Such errors would be easier to forgive if there didn't seem to be a pattern emerging that indicates the city's lack of understanding for how important it is to communicate with the public.

Just in the recent past:

- The city passed an administrative rule applying a no-cruising law to downtown streets, catching the city councilman who lives in the neighborhood by surprise. There was no hearing, no public discussion, and many city residents are opposed to the decision.

- The city and MoDOT announce a plan to finalize the new route for the airport road less than 30 days after it was unveiled at a meeting that came more than a year after the city promised adjacent land owners an opportunity to have their voices heard.

- The city closed the road in the Phelps Grove neighborhood with no notice.

In each of these cases, the mistake was in not properly prioritizing public input and notice, and the result was creating an atmosphere in which the public has reason to doubt or distrust the city. In the long run, such missteps will come back to haunt a growing city that relies on the good will with its residents to pass tax hikes to pay for new roads, new parks and other projects.

In one area, among key decision makers across the city, Springfield has very effective communication. Take a look at the Chamber-sponsored trip this week to the city of Knoxville, Tenn. Key city leaders work together on such trips every year, and generally speaking, the communication among folks on this list of travelers — the mayor and mayor pro-tem and city manager, university executives, chamber leaders, school and library executives, leaders from City Utilities — is excellent. But these are the usual suspects. These are the people our city leaders talk to every day, and in doing so, sometimes, we believe they lull themselves into a false sense that they are communicating well with the average members of the public who don't deal with the city until a road in their neighborhood gets shut down.

In both the airport road example and the Phelps Grove example, certain parties were informed of impending action — the landowner who sat on the airport board and Missouri State University — and other parties were not informed.

In both cases, this led to charges of "arrogance" being leveled at the city.

We tend to think it's not arrogance, but a lack of understanding of how communication must come first even if it means that projects are slowed down.

City mustn't be oblivious

Somewhere, there is a disconnect in a city hall that doesn't recognize how important communicating with the public is, even when that public is guaranteed to be unhappy about one decision or another. A city that embraces its critics and seeks to give them a clear voice is much better off than one that seems oblivious to the concerns of residents. Folks are always going to be mad at the city for something or another, but the city should resolve to never have that anger be a cause of people not feeling like they have a voice in their government.

Springfield has an ample public relations team. The city just hired a new assistant city manager and elevated another one to a higher position. Somewhere within all that administrative brain trust, the culture must be established that reverses this trend of finding residents feeling like they're on the outside of government looking in.

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