What we had here was a failure to communicate

By Rebecca Carr | May 27, 2010

City staff and council have worked hard in recent months to become more transparent and involve residents earlier in the process.

We’ve seen what happens when communication works well and when it doesn’t. After lengthy discussions and reversed decisions regarding where to site the new City Hall, the council seated at that time rammed through a location at the far end of town without notifying the public it would make the final decision that evening, pleasing almost nobody.

While we can hardly blame councilmembers or staff for wanting to put an end to nearly two decades of running in circles, that was a swing and a miss as far as working with, and listening to, taxpayers.

We’ve also seen the positive results of open communication, as evidenced by the downtown business sub area renovation plans. More than 100 citizens showed up at each public hearing and provided voluminous testimony about what they do and don’t want to see in Old Town.

Staff listened closely and, with the help of consultants, crafted all of that information into a solid plan that encourages businesses while not adversely affecting the surrounding residential area.

The council passed a dive ban last spring, a tiny line item approved without discussion in the consent portion of the agenda. When dozens of divers crowded council chambers in protest, the city listened carefully and explained its reasoning. What resulted was nixing the ban while proposing new safety measures and making the dive community a positive, integral part of our waterfront activity. Everybody won.

The EMS levy is up again, as the six-year plan approved in 2003 expires in December. Last time, it took three tries to sell voters before it finally passed. Most who turned it down said they had no idea how the money would be spent and no assurance the city would keep its promises.

Rather than the slam dunk that fire and EMS levies often tend to be with the public, the council learned the hard way that today’s voters want information before signing over hundreds of thousands in tax dollars.

This time around, the council has a much more ambitious plan in mind: a 50-cent levy, more than doubling the current 23-cent rate, and it’s asking voters to approve it for life.

That’s going to be a hard sell, particularly in this economy.

The key will be communication. The city has solid evidence it spends its EMS dollars wisely, in the form of around-the-clock staffing at Old Town’s station, city-hired paramedics, and a career fire department.

However, it must get that word out to residents, as well as correct misinformation about a perceived “windfall” from finance director Scott James’ goal to have EMS pay for itself rather than being subsidized by the general fund.

It’s off to a good start, having held the first of several open houses at both fire stations earlier this month. 

Some councilmembers, and Mayor Joe Marine, point to the deafening silence from most residents regarding annexation as approval or apathy. We’ve been on this beat long enough to know that that isn’t necessarily the case. All too often, citizens get on board after the final decision is made wondering what hit them and what they can do about it.

What can you do? Attend the open houses. Read the materials. Ask questions. Write letters. And vote – when that opportunity finally comes.

After all, communication only works as a two-way street. If you don’t take the time to learn the information and to make your feelings known to council and staff, how can you expect them to make sound, reasonable decisions that represent you?

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