The dichotomy of confidence

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 26, 2005

It’s been almost a year since I started writing this column for the Suffolk News-Herald and as I had discussed last year with the editor, I have tried to focus my writing on the workings of our local government.

As I have done this I have tried to enlighten the readers of the paper about government and what it does for and most importantly to us.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of this has been the impact that the paper, including the many articles written by others and myself, have had on how our local government works and reacts to the issues at hand.

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A prime example of this was the recent rebuttal the city manager wrote concerning one of my articles; about how the sale of a public property to a local downtown developer was handled.

It was interesting to note that there is such a significant difference in perspective between what was known about the deal and how the city manager chose to describe the situation.

Such posturing and explanations that run counter to appearances, is the most telling aspect of this dichotomy.

With such a vacuum of leadership from council, it was apparent that council did not set up this deal or even get properly briefed.

Once again the administration missed the fact that the context of a situation can place an innocent situation into jeopardy, just as the facts can.

While it was apparent that there are still many questions about how such deals continually get set-up, there does not appear to be any concern about why this process is approved.

In the public realm, this means that even if everything was OK, it failed the smell test and just did not look good…

The public trust can be seriously injured by the subtle appearance of improper treatment or actions.

As such it is important that the sale, use, and disposition of public funds and property be well above reproach or question.

When corners are cut and leadership is abdicated to speed a deal for the well connected to get what they want, a crime may not have been committed, but public confidence is lost.

This last issue is an important nuance that seems to slip by our local leaders too often when conducting our business of late.

While most of us have many reasons to live in Suffolk and truly believe that we have found the best place in this area to raise our families, work, have fun, and grow old; we need confidence in our local leaders too.

The city council recently was briefed by the communications director about the high marks Suffolk got in the past &uot;Citizen Survey&uot; even though I have yet to talk to even one person in the survey.

While no one can minimize the veracity of these kind remarks and the faith the citizens have, at the margins were tax policy, public spending, and the conduct of local government exists the citizens are mute.

This is due to the fact that most citizens have a life and while they may not like many of the actions of the city administration, such conduct is not an immediate concern for direct action for most.

They have baseball games, after school events, work, and family issues that capture their concerns and attention.

By example, at the recent listening session held by the mayor concerning the future of the election of the mayor, it was enlightening to hear that he did not feel that there was much interest by the voters in electing their mayor.

At that time an interesting thing happened.

A citizen spoke up and others in attendance joined in to give the mayor an ear full, that just because the number of citizens present was less than hoped for, it did not diminish the fact that the people wanted to elect their own mayor.

It was pointed out that while there were only few dozen people in attendance, given the harried lives most lead now with long work days and evenings filled with family duties, it was understandable that many could not make an early evening meeting with the mayor.

It was also made clear from the audience that the most compelling reason that this issue is of great importance to the people is that with a strong city manager who has an active agenda, it is imperative that we have a strong mayor to counter-balance such policies and practices.

In addition, we need an elected mayor that is directly accountable to the citizens every four years.

Under the present system citizens have limited access and the process is much too burdensome to work well.

Some may not want change in the status-quo and might say that we already have access and accountability, but it is only so for the well connected as we see in the many downtown deals we have spoken of… As our city continues to grow this issue will become more painfully apparent.

The council-manager form of government only works well, when the citizens have the ability to hold their top leaders directly accountable at the polls.

Since we are not a democracy where we all vote on each issue, but rather are a republic where we depend upon those who represent us, we must insure we have a say in how such representation occurs.

If this vital issue is not dealt with soon, the benefits of our republic will continue to be severely diminished by administrators.

Also as the present council-members jockey for political position behind closed doors to convince only three other citizens (three other council-members), to vote for them as mayor, it highlights why we need change.

We must commit ourselves to start the process now to change an archaic system to insure accountability and to raise sensitivity to the appearance of proper conduct.

It may take the next five years to properly transition to a new method to choose our mayor by direct elections, but we do need to start now.

Roger Leonard is a Suffolk businessman and regular News-Herald columnist. He can be reached at