The importance of community dialogue
Why the surprise from Barry County commissioners that more residents didn’t turn out for the two public forums in the past three months to discuss the possibilities of building a new jail and a new Commission on Aging building? And why their frustration that it seems to be the same group of “naysayers” who’ve been at both meetings?
Perhaps the people who stayed home were the wiser ones. After all, they’ve spent too much time hearing politicians talk and realizing that the leaders they elected are not listening to them.
These two public forums, on Nov. 4 and Jan. 22, provide the latest example of the disconnect between communities and their leaders. I saw that reality locally after attending both of the public forums led by a high-paid consultant hired by county commissioners to “educate” taxpayers about building a new jail and a new COA building.
Neither meeting provided clarity or resulted in any clear direction – primarily because commissioners didn’t listen and the consultant from the architectural firm that would like to be awarded the eventual construction design contract, TowerPinkster of Kalamazoo, did not invite any open-ended dialogue.
The naysayers, as they were called by commissioners, were looking for answers but, instead of being invited to participate in healthy dialogue, were directed to fill out cards on which to write their questions and concerns. That’s not what good public discourse or debate is all about. Good communication is listening to everyone’s perspective and discussing the issues so that, in the end, you come up with that the majority of taxpayers might support.
“With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed,” Abraham Lincoln said. “Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes and pronounces decisions.”
And now, before the last two forums Feb. 13 and Feb. 18, commissioners appear to be falling into the latter category of Lincoln’s observation. Last week, commissioners agreed the consensus was clear, that a new jail should be their priority this year – even though they’ve held just two public sessions, neither of which came to any conclusion or direction on the issues. They were merely public meetings with little or no discussion on working together toward a common understanding of the issues.
“I think we can be honest with ourselves and say that there likely will be just the jail on the ballot in August,” Commissioner Ben Geiger said. “And it [the jail] will likely be on the same site.”
So I ask: Where’s the openness, the dialogue from community members and a true concern for any ideas the public might have? From what I’ve seen, commissioners don’t have much of a plan to present to voters. That also was the question put to them by facilitator Nancy Ohle who, during the board’s special goal-setting workshops Jan. 28 and Jan. 29, urged “positive messaging.”
“That’s all covered in our contract with TowerPinkster,” Geiger replied. “Their professional resources are going to be used for that. There’s a time and place for talking about that messaging, and we have hired that firm for their professional assistance.”
The “TowerPinkster Process,” as it was termed by Board Chairwoman Heather Wing, is far from the open dialogue in search of finding common understanding and a clear sense of what the issues are in other forums that I’ve attended over the years.
At the very least, open discussion – even a debate of the issues – will lead commissioners to an eventual decision voters might support. Unfortunately, we see the opposite continually at all levels when elected officials are unable to solve any issues because of the lack of good old-fashioned debate.
We see it in Lansing where we’ve been talking about fixing Michigan roads for more than a decade. Without a real debate on the issues, we’ve failed to find a reasonable solution. So many of us had hoped that, as a former legislator, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would have been able to forge reasonable relationships across the aisle and the political divides to get a roads bill done without having to resort to borrowing billions through the sale of bonds without bipartisan agreement and no current plan as to how we’ll repay the debt.
The ability to develop, articulate, and evaluate arguments remains not only the lifeblood of our democracy and society, it’s essential to the development of an engaged society.
We see it in Washington, D.C., where we’ve lost three years for focusing on the real issues for which people need answers while trying to remove a president from office.
According to a Pew Report, two-thirds of Americans view affordability and availability of health care as a big problem. They’re pleading for health care reform that will reduce the cost, especially from prescription drugs. An even though they are dissatisfied with the present system, they remain cautious over the implications of a “national health insurance” program.
We need open and healthy dialogue on illegal immigration and climate change policies, on college tuition, the federal budget deficit and terrorism. Yet in Washington few, if any, of these issues are top-of-mind for elected officials, and the war between political parties rages on.
We see the high price for not listening here in Barry County, too, where county commissioners are spending thousands on high-paid consultants to interpret the community’s interests while our own people are trying to speak and commissioners end up tuning out the voices.
The best and most recent example of that came two weeks ago when our county judges announced some changes coming soon that will have a direct impact on inmate numbers and reduce the need for a much larger jail. Barry County District Court Judge Michael Schipper, who’s aware of the changes, said, “If the changes are enacted, significantly fewer inmates will be in the Barry County Jail.”
A meeting of three county commissioners, the judges, their court administrator and the sheriff was held at the courthouse Tuesday. But, once again, the dialogue that took place there should have happened at a regular county board meeting so that everyone could have heard the discussion.
Given the political climate we’re experiencing at every level of government, elected officials need to go the extra mile to maintain maximum transparency in any discussions. Only then will they find the answers that might lead to the public’s support in upcoming elections.
“A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity,” the Dalai Lama cautioned.
Transparency in government goes beyond reducing corruption and complacency. Leaders who promote openness in the decision-making process will find governing easier when people feel they’ve participated in the process.
My suggestion to county commissioners: Go ahead and continue your public forums, but listen and welcome more dialogue from the general public before you turn the decision over to the consultants.
Fred Jacobs, CEO,
J-Ad Graphics Inc.