Monday, January 24, 2005

NA Confidential challenges both the Mayor and the City Council to improve communications with the people of this city

At last week’s City Council meeting, a citizen speaker asked how many of the eight council members present for duty (Bill Schmidt was ill) had visited the city’s web site lately.

One member raised his hand. There was a half-hearted nod from another. Some looked down at the floor, while others eyed the ceiling. Dan Coffey stated publicly that he hadn’t looked at the web site for a couple of years. All members present looked uncomfortable at having been put on the spot.

The citizen continued. Shouldn’t there be some way to visit the city’s web site and find complete contact information for all city officials – not just phone numbers, but e-mail addresses? Of the dozens of New Albany municipal officials, only City Clerk Marcey Wisman provides a comprehensive description on the site of her office’s functions, and complete contact information.

Again, there was a nod or two, several obvious expressions of boredom, and the imminent threat of President Gahan’s ubiquitous staccato gavel.

What was that we were saying yesterday about respect? Did we mention that it’s a two-way street?

Lest it be said that NA Confidential has eyes only for the bizarrely stunted public relations skills of Mayor James Garner, it should be remarked that he is not the only elected official who has failed to grasp the obligation of communicating with the citizens of the city of New Albany.

Of course, Mayor Garner would like for you to know that you can come see him any time in the privacy of his office. Councilman Coffey, and presumably most of his cohorts on the Council, will give you a telephone number and invite you to call for a chat.

In other words, these elected officials will be more than happy to speak with you one-on-one so long as they remain on their turf – behind a closed door, at the other end of a phone line, or with a gavel in hand.

Perhaps NA Confidential is overly demanding, but we believe that a public official’s obligation to communicate with the citizenry goes further than five-minute increments grudgingly offered once a fortnight by the City Council, or by a mayor who has so little regard for the views of citizens that he remains ensconced in the corridor as they speak.

The calendar indicates 2005, and all elected officials should make e-mail addresses available to the public. If the city is unable to provide suitable e-mail service (if so, it’s yet another shameful indictment of City Hall’s organizational skills), then there are numerous personal avenues via Yahoo! or Hotmail. These should be posted on the city’s web site, along with telephone numbers. It is entirely reasonable to expect that a city the size of New Albany can offer a bare minimum of telephone extensions and voice mail to officeholders … or pay for a cellular network.

To repeat: It is 2005.

Perhaps the City-County building uses a different calendar.

Na Confidential suggests that both our Mayor and the City Council be prepared not just to respond promptly and in sufficiently literate fashion to electronic and telephone queries, but also to step out from their respective comfort zones and present themselves to the community.

Currently our mayor and council representatives, abetted by commentators like the Tribune’s Amany Ali, see only “theatrics” when citizen speakers use their precious time allotment to address the city’s leaders … and unfortunately, the city’s leaders feel threatened by it.

Instead, the city’s leaders should be seeing “opportunities,” and be challenged by those citizens who are showing a willingness to participate.

If in fact current formats are unwieldy, it is only because New Albany’s concerned citizens have so few chances to address the city’s leaders as a group. Ten minutes a month isn’t enough.

The obvious solution is for leaders to lead by seizing the public relations initiative and take themselves to the people in the form of regularly scheduled forums throughout the city.

Now is the time for New Albany’s elected officials to listen and to lead.

For a variety of reasons, perhaps sensing that New Albany stands at a crossroad with respect to its future, city residents are expressing interest in possibilities, in their quality of life, and in what ways they can be part of the future.

Why are more and more people reading NA Confidential?

There are as many reasons as there are readers, but prime among them is that the mere presence of this admittedly imperfect Internet forum (and others like it) provides validation for many concerned New Albanians whose needs have not been met by communications-challenged public officials and underachieving local newspapers.

Accountability is the goal, and although there are numerous paths toward its realization, the best and least expensive place to start is by bettering the lines of communication between citizen and elected leader.

NA Confidential already has challenged Mayor Garner to face the public. It now challenges the City Council to initiate a process for doing the same.

If City Clerk Marcey Wisman can do it …

Two other vital New Albany web logs:
Volunteer Hoosier
New Albany Renewal

13 comments:

Kevin Zurschmiede said...

Roger,
You got this issue right.
I have emailed my council reprsentative 4 times during the past year and have never had a response.
Guess what if a person aspires to be in the polictical arena they are going to have to be willing to have questions posed to them by there constituents.
I realize the council is a low paying job, but these council members asked to be where they are. In the publics eyes. I challenge my precint Councilwoman to hold monthly open meetings in her precint so that her constituents can help her by voicing there concerns.
These monthly meetings will make her better able to act on important issues. I also feel she will be able to act with more confidence if she nows her local residents are behind her.
Keep up the mind jarring columns.
KWZ

The New Albanian said...

Kevin, you're right, but the beneficial aspects of self-improvement seem to have been removed from the gene pool hereabouts.

I was wondering: You mentioned previously that you had a stake in downtown property - is it the old drug store building on the corner of Pearl and Market? E-mail me privately if you don't want to discuss publicly.

MJ said...

Since taking office the web site(or should I say lack thereof) has been one of my biggest complaints. I was so happy when citizen stood up at the last council meeting and said pretty much what I have been saying for the last 13 months. Maybe now someone will listen.

It should not be this difficult to put together a decent comprehensive web site. My dad spent fifteen minutes with me showing me how to use Frontpage and I hade my web page ready to go in a matter of hours. Had the indivuals who have been put in charge of this site done the same for me last January (as I had asked to be trained to do)my page would have been done last year and the minutes (which I'm still waiting for help with) would have been on there all year.

Also, Roger since you brought up the fact that this is 2005 you will find it very interesting to know that when we took office last year the different city offices were not networked at all (they now are), and the only way there was internet in the offices was if one of the employees was willing to register (most with aol) using the personal credit cards and then the city would reimburse them. Now all city employees have internet and email addresses. However, the city council members were not given addresses and that would be nice for them to have. Also, last year when I asked for the funds to purchase new computers and pay for my internet I was told by a councilman that the clerk's office didn't need the internet. It's hard to move into the 21st century when your working with individuals who mentally are not here yet.

My Grandmother taught me that Patience is a virtue, but my patience is really running thin.

All4Word said...

NA Confidential,

Wanted you to know how appreciative we are of the tone and intentions on your blog. From its inception, your Web log was designed to be a forum and not an incitement.

Despite any displeasure or dissatisfaction with the city administration, you've maintained your call for accountability while pointing out the foibles of follies of various incumbents. Today's posting calling to account is a case in point.

It is clear that you give careful consideration to your words and are always careful to make a call for action. The quality of the writing makes it pointed, not the acidity of the tongue.

There's a distinct line between what you do and what I'm seeing from the spitting mad crowd. There's clearly a political campaign under way and for all I know that's the norm in New Albany. From the day one gets elected the next campaign starts.

I've carefully read each of your postings and I believe you are not a part of any political campaign. While you may not give your vote to some of your targets, you're not abdicating your responsibility as a citizen. You continue to expect our elected officials to DO THEIR JOBS!

I once again encountered the mildly humorous, but to me partisan bumper sticker that reads "Jimmy G. You Work For Me." Cute. And correct.

But I wonder at the motive behind its authors. It's kind of funny, but would it be as funny if it read "Danny C. You Work For Me" or "Stevie P. You Work For Me?" Or how about "Markie Sea, You Work For Me." Maybe it's not as funny. But it's just as correct.

Besides that, it gift-wraps for the incumbent mayor a ready-made campaign slogan, if his recent actions signal even the remotest chance of a political comeback. Can't you see it now? "JIMMY G, HE WORKS FOR ME."

Here's hoping all the A's, B's, and C's recognize who it is they work for.

DICK STEWART said...

GOVERNMENT WORKS "WORST"WHEN IT IS DONE BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. THE CURRANT ADMINSTRATION IS A VERY GOOD PRACTIONER OF THIS POLICY. AS MR BRODUS EXPERIENCED,LETTING THE LIGHT SHINE ON POOR GOVERNMENT. HE PAID THE PRICE OF LOOSING HIS JOB OF 18 YRS FOR EXPOSING WRONG DOING AND SLOPPY MANAGEMENT OF THIS ADMINISTRATION. NOW WITH THE HELP OF MR GAHAN,WHO IS TRYING TO LIMIT THE VOICES OF CITIZENS TO EXPRESS THEIR VIEW OF HOW OUR CITY IS RAN TO 5 MIN. BEFORE THE COUNCIL. WITH GAVEL IN HAND AND EGG TIMER IN SIGHT, MR GAHAN HAMMERS DOWN ANY CRITICISM THAT IS DIRECTED TOWARD THE MAYOR. I GUESS THE MAYOR WILL LISTEN TO ANY COMPLAINTS OVER 5 MIN.IN HIS OFFICE BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. YES FOLKS !!! GOVERNMENT DOES WORK "WORST" BEHIND CLOSED DOORS.

MJ said...

I feel that I really need to address the issue of a 5 minute limit on Public comments at the council meetings. This was not something that Councilman Gahan came up with himself, this is actually city ordinance. Granted it has not been enforced in the past, but with the amount of individuals who are wanting to speak at the meetings I believe it is necessary that there be a time limit in place. I think that the last council meeting is a perfect example of why the limits are needed. Even with a lax 5 min. limit the council did not actually perform any business until 9:00 p.m.

Also, many of the issues that are being discussed in the meetings are outside of the City Council's jurisdiction. I agree that they can and should listen to the concerns, but in many cases they have very little power to do anything about them. Anything that deals with city operations (street cleaning, sanitation, pot holes, web site, etc.)should be directed to the Board of Public Works and Safety. That board meets at 10:00 a.m. every Tuesday in the same assembly room. Furthermore, the numerous complaints about the job the Mayor is or isn't doing is not falling on deaf ears, there is simply nothing the council can do about them. Statutorily the council can not dictate to the Mayor and vice versa. There have been several individuals who have suggested a type of Town Hall meeting where the Mayor could directly address concerns that people have regarding issues in the city and I think that would be the best solution to this problem. However, I'm not sure that will happen.

The New Albanian said...

MJ, thanks for a series of excellent points.

I think most people comprehend that given the number of people wishing to speak at Council meetings, a 5-minute makes sense whether or not it is supported by an ordinance. It will get better as President Gahan grows more comfortable in his new position.

What people don't understand is why Mayor and City Council alike, and also the Tribune's Chris Morris and Amany Ali, seem to think that this growing interest in speaking on the part of the public is somehow a bad thing.

For both Mayor and City Council to effectively stonewall dissent and discussion by citing a lack of statutory compulsion to pay attention may be a case of scrupulous attention to legal detail, but it also threatens to create an angry backlash on the part of citizens, in turn leading to further gridlock - which is the very last thing any of us want.

All this could be avoided by the Mayor and Council acknowledging the public's presence, showing appreciation for it, thinking creatively outside the statutory box, and advocating new forums for registering the opinion of citizens.

NA Confidential may be apolitical when it comes to local officialdom, but those mastadons within it who show a reluctance to move with the changing times are certainly those most likely to arouse opposition should they seek re-election - something that will owe not to party affiliation, but to whether they have displayed ability.

Thanks again for your insights - they are invaluable.

dan said...

This is in response to MJ regarding the erroneous comment that a five minute time limit to speak is in the city ordinances, that is partially correct, it states the time limit is for city council members not the public, any change in city council protocol has to be by an ordinance amendment by the city council and approved on a roll call vote by a majority vote. Therefore Jeff (1 term) Gahan is acting without the proper authority in limiting the public's freedom to speak.

All4Word said...

So you agree, Dan, that there is no statutory requirement that the council hear communications from the public during its official meetings?

That's the point. While the council is obligated to be responsive to citizens, it is not obligated to turn its meetings over to the public.

Exception can be taken to the skill with which the council manages public comment, but city council meetings aren't public forums. That's what NA Confidential is calling for, public forums, not by right, but as a simple matter of constituent service.

It's hardly productive to excoriate Gahan on a legal basis when there is no legal obligation. The call for a conscience is what this Web log is all about.

dan said...

In response to all4word, yes the council must allow the public to speak that is part of the ordinance, the ordinace does not limit the time the public is allowed to speak however, only the council members ar allotted 5 minutes, if you would bother to read new albany's code you would see I am correct.

You have the makings of a future city council person since you do not read the city code either apparently.

All4Word said...

Hate to get legal on you, dan, but I specifically said "statutorily" for a reason.

While the city does have an element of sovereignty and is not an arm of the state, it is chartered by the state and state law governs.

There is no statute that requires a city legislative body to permit public comment during its meetings. The ordinance permits the general public to submit petitions and remonstrances to the council. It does not require that they be given any forum to speak.

It is a courtesy of the council that they allow the public to speak. It may be wise, it may be desirable, but it is not required. If it were required, even with time limits in the ordinance, then any group could prevent the council from performing any of its legislative duties. In short, by your reading of the ordinance, any group of people, or even one person, could filibuster the city council ad nauseam until the council adjourned.

How would you like to go to a city council meeting and be instructed to submit your petitions and remonstrances in written form to the city clerk, who, at the appropriate time, handed a boxful of such to the council president? That clearly would be in compliance with the ordinance. Even if the council president then ostentatiously dumped them out the windows and onto the plaza, the only ordinance being violated would be that against littering.

Note that the form of communications is at the discretion of the council and specifically the council president. Note also that such communication is, by ordinance, scheduled prior to the council taking action on any official business other than ceremonial and receiving communications.

... (E) Communications, in the following order:

(1) From city officials.

(a) Mayor

(b) Controller

(c) City Attorney

(d) City Engineer

(2) From official commission.

(a) Board of Public Works

(b) Plan Commission

(c) Park Commission

(3) From members of the public, including petitions and remonstrances.

(F) Introduction of ordinances in the following order:...

I'm not sure how gullible you believe the readers of this Web log to be. A mere declaration that something violates an ordinance or is otherwise illegal should be backed up by the facts.

You might be able to nit-pick on the order of business, but you cannot now continue to claim that the public has an unfettered right to speak at city council meetings and claim that the city code permits it or does not limit it. The code clearly does not require the council to permit anyone to speak.

When the Congress receives a communication from the President, even the State of the Union report, it is not required to be given orally - that is a custom and a courtesy that maintains the separation of powers.

Likewise, you will note, the ordinance does not (and cannot) require the presence of the mayor for the council to conduct its business and the council could not compel the mayor to attend.

For those of you who are reading and wonder what's going on, the city's ordinances on the rules of procedure for the conduct of city council meetings are readily available online at the following URL:

http://www.amlegal.com/nxt/gateway.dll/Indiana/New%20Albany/title00004.htm/chapter00005.htm?fn=document-frame.htm$f=templates$3.0#LPTOC2

Or simply go to www.amlegal.com and click through on the "frames" version for New Albany, Indiana.

dan said...

hate to get Legalese on you All4word, but the last time I checked an ordinance does become the law of the land and is considered statutory at the local level as long as it does not conflict with state or federal statutes. The ordinance infers the the right of a citizen to speak publicly at a city council meeting without a time limit.

I stand corrected from yesterday when I stated that you would be a good potential candidate for city council, your ability to twist the facts might make you a good candidate for Mayor.

All4Word said...

Infers? The King's English would, of course, require that you use "implies." Wouldn't have bothered, but you seem to have made grammar and spelling an issue elsewhere on this Web log.