V I E W P O I N T S
It’s all about communication.
That’s what I thought when I got home from last week’s chaotic special called meeting of the Dade County Commission, sat down at my computer and saw my own vanilla-pudding face staring unhappily out at me from Facebook.
With today’s amazing new technology, anybody can live-stream anything with a click or two of a cellphone. So now, even here in rural Dade County, public meetings can be piped into anybody’s FB feed who wants them, and what my own unphotogenic self (I’m much better looking in person) was doing at the press table Thursday evening was a function that may shortly be obsolete. Why read a newspaper account of a meeting when you can just watch the video?
But even with this new instant accessibility, I thought that night as I listened again to words that had not been music to anyone’s ears the first time around, communication between the public and the local gummint is still at a premium. (That, and: Maybe it really is time to do something about the hair!)
Anyway, since the magic of streaming may soon send my peculiar brand of Mongo journalism the way of the pay phone and the sanitary pad belt, I thought I’d indulge here in a little analysis of last week’s fiasco, from the viewpoint of someone whose job is communication, and for whom this ain’t the first rodeo.
There was a lynch-mob atmosphere at the Feb. 15 meeting, inspiring in me, anyway, a natural inclination to sympathize with the lynchees. And it wasn’t just that the commissioners were under attack, it was also the fact that no matter how loudly a few very angry voices shout otherwise—and you’d swear sometimes that anger is some people’s, like, hobby—I’ve been sitting around listening to the Dade County Commission for years now, taking notes and asking questions when clarification is needed, and I simply have not found anything to lynch it for. The commissioners are all personable and courteous men whom I find to varying degrees likable and conscientious.
And I’m not the only one with that perception. None of the commissioners is in his first term. Some of them have been elected over and over again, and in the last go-round—2016—the county boss, Chairman Rumley, got more votes than both of his challengers put together. That’s a pretty good indicator of how Dade in general feels about its leadership. These are great guys.
Now. Having established that I think the commissioners are swell, I will proceed to attack them first: They brought a lot of last Thursday’s grief on themselves by bad communication. I don’t want anybody to lynch them, but sometimes I do want to shake them and shout: YOU NO RISSEN!
Communication requires listening, and so does representing a constituency. You’d think the guys would realize that by now! It’s a sore point for me because as the local crusadin’ journalist I spend about half my life trying to get readers to participate in democracy. One of the most fulfilling things about living in a place like this, I tell people, is you can make a difference! Your local government is small enough to be responsive, I cheer, waving my pompoms. Go to meetings, I bleat. Speak up! You will be heard!
Then, when people do go to meetings and do speak up, the commissioners make a liar of me every time!
I noticed this the first time last year when citizens attended commission meetings in droves to address the commission about its liquor ordinance. Dade had voted yes to liquor by the drink 60 to 40 percent, but when citizens came to speak against the commission ordinance that more or less nullified the referendum, commissioners told them to their faces, without cracking a grin, that they had to represent the 40 percent who voted no.
Which was nonsense, since what they were doing with their ordinance was specifying that to get a liquor license an establishment had to seat at least 60, and I’m pretty sure that the Dade voters opposed to alcohol weren’t in favor of more of it being served to bigger crowds at larger bars; but I flogged that dead horse enough at the time that I will shut up about it now.
What the protestors were protesting last Thursday was the commission’s decision to put TSPLOST, the transportation special purpose local option sales tax that would raise the sales tax in Dade from 7 to 8 cents, back to referendum in May when it had just been defeated in November. And what the commissioners told them was that the vast majority of voters had stayed home in November and they wanted to give them another shot.
So from telling the booze protestors they had to represent the people who voted the other way, who the commissioners told the tax protestors they had to represent this time was the people who hadn’t voted at all. Naturally that made the protestors angrier. It was wrong and unfair and an insult to anybody trying to participate in democracy.
What should the commissioners have done? No one expects—or at least I don’t—for them to bow and scrape and say Oh, yes, mighty voter! We will rush out to do your will! But how’s about some sincere, respectful Indian-chief-style statement like: “I hear you.” Not “We hear and obey,” mind you, but just: “We hear.”
And above all, for the love of God, please don’t tell the citizens who vote, much less the ones who go to the trouble of showing up to commission meetings, that they’re not as important as the ones who sit at home picking their butts. They are, too! Citizens who participate are the most important part of the democratic process! And you do, too, hear them. If you didn’t hear what was being said last Thursday, I will refer you to that audiology place next door to Circle K.
The second part of communication is explaining your side. And there’s no point denying, dear commissioners, that you have got one. In both of the issues I’ve brought up, the commission has made its position abundantly clear. When the local golf club recently signaled an interest in selling alcoholic refreshment to its patrons, the commission’s ensuing deliberations boiled down to HOW CAN WE STOP THEM? And the fact that the TSPLOST has come back to life before its corpse had cooled the first time makes it pretty clear where the commission stands on that one. So why not just tell your side to the voters, clearly and honestly, explaining the benefits?
We’ll leave the alcohol issue out of this. There’s lots of valid arguments against Demon Rum but I think America has decided in large part they should be argued by the religion, family or individual, not by the gummint; and anyway, I promised to stop flogging that deceased equine.
TSPLOST is another matter. There’s only one argument against it—“AH HATE TAXES! AH DESPISE ‘EM”—which we heard, in chorus, last week. But I’ve actually heard several good arguments in favor of the tax. One was about the scary state of roads and especially bridges in places that couldn’t find money to fix them. It made me afraid to drive over bodies of water in Alabama or Tennessee (which sucks because I already had a thing about bridges) but it convinced me. Another was about the ins and outs of SPLOST vs. general fund spending (which made my eyes glaze over but I’m sure it was valid, too). And I’ve made arguments of my own about how bad this place needs sidewalks.
Why not take these arguments to the people? That’s what the sole commissioner next door in Walker County did, with only his cellphone and Facebook, and damned if the voters didn’t buy it. In Dade, too, in regular SPLOSTs, voters routinely vote extra pennies of tax on themselves when they can see the need for it.
To drag in yet another issue that the commission is being jumped on for, I think the Great Lake Controversy is another example of the commission failing to explain itself properly. First I heard of it, the commission voted in June without dissent to option a $500,000 piece of land along Lookout Creek, explaining only that the water authority wanted it, that federal money was out there for building reservoirs, and that Dade residents would enjoy the recreational opportunities afforded by their new lake. I thought that despite their slant toward temperance the commissioners had taken to drink en masse. They couldn’t maintain the little acre they had on the creek now. What were they going to do with a lake?
Later I interviewed Doug Anderton, who manages the water company, and he went over the history and answered my questions. Then I grasped that obtaining the Lookout Creek land had been part of a strategic water plan made in 2005, that it was a factor in maintaining Dade’s water autonomy in the face of aggressive market forces I hadn’t known existed, and that obtaining the land was part of a long-range strategy for growth, with no plans to build a lake now or in the near future.
“Oh!” I said. “Why didn’t you say so in the foist place?” And I duly passed the revelation on in an exhaustive Planet article—but more people listen to the commissioners than to little old me. Why not tell your side directly to them?
So that’s my advice to the commission: Hold some public meetings! Make sure they’re live-streamed for the butt pickers! Listen to what voters say! Tell them you hear them! Tell them why you’re doing what you’re doing, and tell them why they should do what you want them to do.
Now, for the tax protestors: You guys need to work on the communication thing, too. You got your point across last Thursday, but you came across more as a torches-and-pitchforks mob than sober citizens with a legitimate beef. Maybe one reason the commissioners didn’t seem to be listening is they were scanning the crowd nervously for weapons and making sure there was law enforcement in the room.
Anyway, didn’t anybody but me hear the one about vinegar vs. honey? As everybody’s mother reminded, you are much more likely to get what you want when you ask nicely. ‘Course, it didn’t work that well for the booze protestors results-wise, but at least I don't remember anybody calling the cops.
How to do better? Thinking about the problem, I remembered a charming treatise I read about marital communication (don’t ask me why I was reading it). Here are some rules I picked up that work as well with your elected representatives as your spouse:
Avoid saying “you always” and “you never.” As in: “You never listen to a word the taxpayers say! You always go out and do exactly what you want with our money!”
Instead, frame the point in such a way as to express what you want, how the other person can accomplish it, and how deeply you honor and esteem them. As in: “I wish you would consult the taxpayers before you spend our money on trips to Argentina to visit your mistress; and may I say what a good color green is on you? That shirt really brings out your eyes.”
Or, you know, words to that effect. Then the second rule is even easier: As Mr. Shakespeare said, brevity is the soul of wit, so keep it short! Just say: “We don’t want any more taxes.” Do not say: “We don’t want any more taxes, you bloated tick on the underbelly of society!”
Right: “Be responsible with public money!”
Wrong: “Be responsible with public money, asshole!”
Again, I can’t guarantee how well it will work to ask nicely, but I can attest anyway how badly it works to make your point viciously. Once I read on the tax protestors’ favorite FB page some particularly mean, sneering commentary about what a rotten job I was doing with The Planet, and did I immediately say, "Dear me! What can I do to make The Dade Planet a better newspaper, so the Village Idiot will like me?"
I did not. The Village Idiot doesn't like anybody! That's not what it's for! If Mother Teresa lived here the Village Idiot would call her a libtard, or say she had an ugly butt. Anyway, insulting me and my newspaper is no way to make me want to please you, and I believe what I actually said was: “Oh, shove it up your ass.”
(Which wasn’t that civil, though please note I did honor the brevity rule, and managed not to say, “Shove it up your ass, sociopath.”)
I have a million more points—how it’s much more productive (if harder) to run for office than to say VOTE THE BUMS OUT (especially when no one runs against the bums!); how people who are smart and well-informed are wasting their time sitting around being agin everything, and would find it more fulfilling to be fer something every once in a while; even how all our mamas were right about it being better to say nice things than nasty ones—but this is getting long and I had better stick to my avowed subject, communication.
And I think I have communicated enough here to be getting on with. Now the whole ugly scene last Thursday makes me want to focus on accomplishing something positive. Possibly doing something about the hair…