Friday, December 19, 2014

Poking the Bear aka Asking Questions

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later.

When you write a column like this one that regularly pokes and prods local government to do the right thing, eventually they poke back.  That finally happened on the recent column regarding the Town of Davidson’s proposed planing ordinance changes.

Last week, Town of Davidson senior staff was quoted in another area publication on the topic of the controversy surrounding the proposed changes, and it was pretty clear that staff took issue with what yours truly had to say.  Those same concerns were never expressed to me directly, but then again, I suppose that's to be expected too.

The person who was quoted, Assistant Town Manager Dawn Blobaum, happened to be the person who I pointed out helped found the local office of the Lawrence Group – the consulting company that has done a large amount of work for the town over the years.  The other person quoted extensively in the other publication’s article was recently retired UNCC professor David Walters.  Walters also has a long history with that same consulting company.

Now let’s be clear, there is not anything intrinsically wrong with using consultants.  However, it does show that in this case staff and the consultants they use are cut from the same cloth.  It does show that they would likely approach things with the same world view.

Fortunately for us - the citizens – unelected staff and their ideologically-driven paid consultants do not set policy.  That is the responsibility of our elected officials.

On that note, I will take the generally positive feedback received from a majority of Davidson Commissioners on my earlier piece as a good sign the points made were valid concerns.  That feedback was received both before and after the piece was published.  Frankly, since commissioners are the ones who will vote on the proposed changes, that’s the feedback that matters most.

That brings me to the second point regarding the columns I write.

When the Weekly Herald approached me with the idea of writing a regular column on local issues, I will admit it was a pleasant surprise.  It was validation that maybe a few more people than readers of political blogs might be interested in the topics I typically cover.  When the subject of money came up, I told them that I would do it for free.  The Herald does not pay me a dime.

My writing over the years has focused on bringing more transparency to local government and trying to provide readers a window into how things really work  The possibility of encouraging more people to take an active role in their government makes any criticism directed at me well worth it.

Make no mistake about it, pushing for change and trying to get government to act more transparently is a task that involves many more losses than wins.  Though, wins do occur.

The most obvious recent one would be the property tax revaluation refunds issued this year by the County and local municipalities – refunds that absolutely would not have occurred if not for the tireless work of local citizens to get the flawed 2011 revaluation corrected.

Another would be the citizen pushback that resulted in Davidson abandoning a 2012 push by officials to implement 4-year staggered terms for Commissioners and the Mayor.  That change by it's very nature would have prevented voters from ever voting out a majority of elected officials in a single election – even if they had made decisions that deserved such a result.

I recently told one local Commissioner that controversy over issues like the ones currently being discussed in Davidson could easily be avoided if government simply put out information they know will be controversial in a more easily accessible way.   Give your average resident a realistic chance to understand what is being done without forcing them to weed through a ton of technical information and then controversy is much less likely.

An example of how that could be accomplished actually occurred on December 9th at the second half of public hearing on Davidson’s planning ordinance changes.  On the subject of allowing corner retail in the Village Infill area, Commissioner Cashion asked planning staff how many corner lots are currently vacant.
Vacant lots allow for the maximum square footage of retail under the proposed changes.  The number and location of these lots may be the most obvious question to ask about this section of changes.

The answer from the town’s planning staff: “Off hand I don’t know, but we could do that research.  I don't believe there are many.”

Maybe the answer is buried in the detailed documentation somewhere.  After two years of work, one would certainly hope so.
However, until those kinds of obvious questions start being answered before they are even asked, there will always be room for columns like the ones featured here.

This post originally appeared in this week's Herald Weekly!.

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