City needs more interaction with citizens, not less

First Posted: 10/16/2009

Thursday night was strange. It was almost like an episode of The Twilight Zone, which is appropriate since Halloween will be here soon.
The evening seemed to be progressing normally enough that is, until I got into my car after leaving the office. But as I headed homeward as usual, the vehicle strangely seemed to develop a mind of its own and began exerting an unstoppable willpower onto its helpless occupant. (I seem to recall a plot from a Stephen King novel in which such a phenomenon occurred.)
Rather than allowing me to turn right onto Rockford Street in downtown Mount Airy, in keeping with my traditional route, the steering wheel suddenly lurched forward. Realizing I no longer had control, I simply sat back and waited as the car headed its own way, soon stopping in front of the Municipal Building on South Main Street.
By then, I knew what was up just like in those Western movies where riderless horses always manage to find their way back to where they should be, my vehicle simply was following the same course of so many Thursdays before.
Since meetings of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners are held on the first and third Thursday nights of each month, that means the council sessions basically are conducted every other Thursday.
I already knew that this weeks meeting had been canceled supposedly due to a lack of business to consider. But my car didnt. It just ventured to the spot it normally would on a third Thursday night of the month in front of an empty building.
Admittedly, I was happy to have such a Thursday night free for a change, when I could actually go home and watch Jeopardy like a real person, and even a good college football game on ESPN.
Then again, I have always told people that meetings of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners sometimes offer the best entertainment available here on a Thursday night, with no admission charge to boot. Many citizens seem to realize this as well, with a larger-than-usual group making its way to council chambers for recent sessions.
And the more I thought about it, I wished that a commissioners meeting had been held Thursday night instead of canceled, mainly because I think our city is at a crossroads which such omissions do nothing to solve.
If any condition can be blamed for this development, it might be the fact that we are in the midst of a municipal election season. Over the past few weeks, various candidates have had a lot to say about funding and other decisions at City Hall, much of it not flattering. Such criticism has surfaced at political forums, meet-the-candidates events and public-comment periods at the council gatherings.
The last couple of city commissioners meetings have, therefore, been heated, emotional affairs at times.
I would like to think my suspicions are exactly that just suspicions but my skeptical side says otherwise. I dont think it is any coincidence that another council meeting is not scheduled until AFTER the municipal election on Nov. 3.
If my suspicions have a basis in reality, I dont think anything can be accomplished by suppressing citizen concerns about government, or avoiding controversy. In my estimation, the unrest simply remains there and continues to foment, only to emerge even more intensely later.
For some reason, certain folks at City Hall cant stand criticism, which is a natural tendency of human beings. However, when youre in a public position earning a huge salary paid by taxpayer dollars it is unrealistic to expect that you wont become caught up in some degree of controversy, especially in these demanding economic times.
That simply goes with the territory.
Interestingly, the cancellation of Thursdays meeting was one topic addressed Tuesday night in a mayoral debate between Deborah Cochran and Teresa Lewis. When asked for her opinion on the move, Lewis replied that she thought the cancellation was a mistake, and a missed opportunity for Mount Airy officials to interact with citizens.
Lewis also rightly pointed out that a lack of communication is largely to blame for a rift that seems to have developed between municipal leaders and citizens, as well as recent criticisms over certain actions.
If anything, we need more avenues for the public to address our elected and other officials certainly not less. And I dont see where suppressing opportunities for comment does anyone any good in the long run.
I also think a recent suggestion by another mayoral candidate has merit, the holding of informal town hall meetings regularly so citizens have an additional means of bringing concerns to local leaders.
But short of a major blizzard, we certainly dont need to be canceling meetings particularly if its because some cant stand to be in a hot kitchen.
Tom Joyce is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at [email protected] or 719-1924.

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