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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ward versus At Large and the Referendum -- Jay Adams

The Hound: Today, being the official 4th anniversary of this blog, I would like to add an article from someone whose opinion I greatly appreciate. Jay Adams is a forward thinker. He is creative and is someone who always has legacy issues in mind when thinking about how the City of Hickory operates presently and going forward. He realizes that everything isn't about today's bottom line. Sustainability is important. He thinks, what is "My" generation going to leave behind for the future generations of this community. I don't always agree with Jay, but to me he is like E.F. Hutton, when he speaks, I listen. 
Ward versus At-Large

The late summer and early fall of 2012 in Hickory will be marked with a truly forgettable yet contentious debate…. The debate is over elections of Hickory City Council members. A referendum has been called for that offers a choice between the present system of "at large" elections where all residents of the city vote for all six seats or "by ward" elections where citizens within each of the six wards elect their individual Council Member. In either case the Council Members elected will work ostensibly under the leadership of the Mayor to make decisions on behalf of all of the citizens of Hickory. I inserted myself into this debate when I attended a meeting held in my neighborhood. The following are my observations and experiences in this matter.

Respected, knowledgeable people have said that either method is perfectly acceptable; in communities across the state both systems are used successfully. And yet, people have become emotionally charged and staked themselves out on which choice is preferred to the extent that faces are red, tears are flowing and vicious letters are being sent to the newspaper. The notion by learned people that either system works fine certainly doesn't match the remarks that have been served up to the public by those that oppose the "by ward" system; the "no's".

The Mayor, taking the lead in the opposition, has said some extraordinary things using terms like "scorched earth", and implying that a change to the 'ward based' system will creep into others areas of government creating havoc. He has suggested that the ward based system will lead to "Chicago style politics" and would facilitate the election of "crackpots" and he has named names in that regard. The Mayor has even cast this as a partisan matter naming me as "one of a few Republicans that support this". The fact is there are Democrats and Republicans on both sides. The Mayor says that you are "being asked to give up 6 votes for 1". I would counter that you have no choice unless there is a contest between candidates. Countering the Mayor's remarks the proponents have used extreme license with the facts by saying the Sails on Union Square cost $1,000,000 and created the "Union Square Elite" moniker.

In a typical political contest the folks that oppose this referendum can count on a block of votes that give them a healthy cushion to achieve the results they wish. This referendum is unique in Hickory politics because the proponents of changing the system have secured the signatures of over 2,700 citizens of Hickory to change the system. If these people turn out; the status quo is defeated. In order to preserve the system Hickory's political syndicate feels the need to create a contentious debate by fabricating controversy. Through feigned indignation, hyperbole and demagoguery they are succeeding and this makes me ill. These are the tactics of a confidence game; not responsible leadership. All of this hyperbole and demagoguery creates a fog of confusion, anxiety and concern for the purpose of moving you to vote on the matter; not informing you but manipulating you, not leading you to a well-considered decision but gaming you to vote a certain way.

Hickory has a political problem… Our 'off year', non-partisan, 'at large' elections have created a very comfortable situation for incumbents. With few exceptions a challenger for a Council seat faces a huge challenge to unseat an incumbent in Hickory. The expense, the logistical challenge and the notion of facing the same type of hyperbole and demagoguery we have seen in this episode are enough to chill the desire of an intelligent, experienced and capable person to run for office. As it is, a challenge for a Council seat usually occurs when there is a particularly contentious event running in the background. We change our Council when we are angry. This is a poor way of evolving our City Council and installing new leadership.

We know what the 'at large' system has produced in Hickory. There was a City council race in 2011 that serves as a good example…. 950 people, of 26,000+ registered voters, elected Council members in Ward 1, 2, & 3… all three seats were unopposed. Next year ward 4, 5, 6, and the Mayor's seat are up (this is likely the basis of their sense of urgency). Our Council member in Ward 2 has held that seat for 30 years. Using a medical metaphor…. Our community is politically flat lining… In my opinion this is very unhealthy.

This referendum emerged as a result of a group of citizens in Hickory that were offended by the City's decision to forgo continuing operation of swimming pools and then later funded the Sails on Union Square. They felt disenfranchised from their representative on Council. They felt the city's priorities excluded them. They took the initiative to petition for a referendum and succeeded in getting the petition signed by 10% of the registered voters. They have provided the citizens of Hickory an opportunity to preserve the status quo or make a change that I believe will benefit Hickory. Their very act of challenging the established authority causes some folks to oppose the measure. I applaud them….

We have recently seen the completion of the 'Sails on Union Square' at a cost of $500,000+. This may be good investment; time will tell…. It was the process that was offensive. No public hearing, no bid process, the idea was the product of a single member of Council and an Assistant City Manager, the project was rushed through, poorly planned, the initial design had to be scrapped, the budget was quickly exceeded and ended up being twice the cost anticipated. And while this project obviously was determined to be a priority, there are other things that have not been attended too, for instance Hickory By Choice 2030 directed the City, among other things, to "prepare a regional economic development plan & strategy". That would seem an effort worth pursuing but it has been two years with no action yet.

What I have written so far is intended to provide the back-story, the basis for all of the sound and fury. My opinion is not based on the hyperbole, the demagoguery, or a judgment of whether or not the City is fiscally responsible. My conclusion is based simply on the notion that organizations grow and prosper by assimilating new qualified talent into the controlling apparatus, in this case, our City Council.

I voted "yes" to change the system to a "ward vote" because I believe that it will reduce the cost of running for a City Council seat, allow people a more manageable task to challenge an incumbent, increase political activity in Hickory and by accomplishing that, increase the talent pool for future leaders of our community, create a more intimate relationship between the citizens in the wards and their Council representative, that will likely result in better leadership in our community. Clearly the present "at large system" acts as a barrier to political involvement halting the movement of new talent into the system. A change to the "ward system" is no panacea, but it provides a challenger a more level playing field against an incumbent. A better solution would be term limits; but that is another matter…

My conclusion is based on my experiences over twenty five years as a commercial real estate broker, my involvement with the Chamber of Commerce, the Unifour Air Quality Committee, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, Foresight Committees, the first Hickory By Choice Committee and various other activities that have allowed me to interface with the City Staff and elected officials.


Harry Hipps said...

Good points Jay. I would add my own experience to this. I ran for office and tried to bring some new ideas and approaches to hickory. Now, the people who are so upset about the insinuation of an elite, insider mentality would not consider an idea of mine if it would cause gold bars to fall in this city. I did some work at my house and the City wouldn't even come out and mark the location of my water line. Why? Because I am persona non grata, not in the club. And the idea that you can call the Mayor or council members on the phone and they will go to work for you is bogus too. A phone call is private and the Mayor or council member can deny that they spoke to you on an issue or promised you anything. They couldn't do this with public statements and that is the real reason to use the phone. I KNOW this happens. Like Jay, I regret the tone this has taken, mostly by the angry tone of the Mayor, but if this referendum fails we are still going to have a problem with a government that is not open, innovative or working for the WHOLE city. Something needs to change. We are not in a healthy, democratic community.

James Thomas Shell said...

Jay is spot on with this and it is well thought out and perfectly reasoned.

The million dollar tent, as I have stated, comes from the fact that they have not been forthright about the numbers. They have given various estimates over time. I was sent figures today that state $496k. These numbers don't include the man hours it took for the city to build this structure or the subsequent necessitated monies and man hours outsourced, from what I am told, to Exodus Ministries so that routine landscaping and maintenance could be performed on City Properties.

Is that not an additional benefit to Exodus Ministries on top of the grant monies that have already been provided annually through public funding? And was there a bidding process that took place when Exodus was provided the contract to provide these landscaping and maintenance services?

And to the term elite. It has been insinuated that the term includes anyone who works or visits the properties. It is ridiculous to say that we are talking about people making minimum wage and tips, $10 per hour, a hair stylist, a clerk, a sales person, secretary, manager, etc.

Who we are pointing to are just a few people and I really don't want to call them out by name. But, these people own several PROPERTIES and a few own businesses
and they wear multiple hats. We are talking about conflicts of interest here folks. And Elite is a "I'm better than you - I know better than you - How dare you question me - Who're You?" mindset.

I agree with Jay that people are the bigger issue, but I believe the Direct Ward system brings the City Council ward representatives closer to the people. God Bless Hank Guess, but he will tell you that the City comes first by a mile and then his ward gets representation. Then why even have ward representatives? And why not go to a pure at-large system and get rid of the wards all together, if the wards mean that little to you?

James Thomas Shell said...

And the above comments are not made against Exodus Ministries, although I am sure that some will try to construe it as such. It is about following proper protocols and procedures.