Sunday, July 10, 2016

When Citizens 'Attack'

I know, I know.

I'm supposed to be off fishing somewhere.

But one of the problems with going fishing, and not catching any fish, is it gives you a lot of time to think.

So, despite my best efforts, I started thinking about Wednesday night's council meeting.

I was thinking about Borough Council President Dan Weand's response to the issues raised last month by school board member Thomas Hylton.

Hylton, using W-2s he obtained from the borough through a Right to Know request, said spending on employees had jumped more than 30 percent -- or $2 million -- in just four years.

Weand responded that Hylton's figures were "misleading" and, reading from a prepared statement, explained how that conclusion had been reached.

(You can see video of Weand reading his entire statement below:)

But it wasn't the specifics of his response so much that caught my attention. After all, council has been responding to Tom Hylton for years.

But it was that dynamic and one particular word upon which I dwelled as the fish ignored my bait. (This is a metaphor obviously as the only fish I ever see are in an aquarium or on my plate.)

The word in Weand's response that I kept coming back to was "attack."

A citizen raised a comparatively well-informed concern about spending at a public meeting (and yes, in the newspaper) and the response is to call it "an attack'?

I thought about it and wondered what would people think if you took the names (and wel-known personalities) out of the equation.

This can be hard, I know, because as former council Ron Downie once said, Pottstown executes "policy by personality." In other words WHO is speaking or acting is often more important than WHAT they say or do.

So here is the thought-experiment I thought up on my metaphorical fishing boat written, of course, in the form of a narrative:
A tax-paying citizen of the Borough of Pottstown recently raised concerns at a public meeting about spending on personnel.

The citizen had taken the steps of using the Right to Know law to obtain w-2 forms to get the fact as best they could be determined, and had taken into account the fact that the borough had gained and lost employees in the past four years.

The citizen even went to the trouble of putting the figures in a spreadsheet to determine, as accurately as he knew how, what the financial impact of the last four years of borough employment had been.

When the citizen saw the results, he brought those concerns to the publicly elected officials of the Borough of Pottstown and expressed them to said officials.

In what is unquestionably an unusual step, the citizen also went to the trouble and expense of outlining his concerns in a paid advertisement in the local newspaper, to ensure his concerns were shared with a wider number of his fellow citizens.

The elected councilman, chosen earlier in the year from among his peers to head the council, tasked the borough's finance department with examining that expenses and (because these instructions were not given in public, we don't know exactly what the finance department was instructed to do).

We do know the result, that at the next public meeting, the elected councilman provided a response which raised several reasonable responses, including that overtime expenses had been high due to unavoidable circumstances like being down 14 police officers and a winter that beat down hard on overtime budgets at the highway department.

(The citizen responded that taxpayers pay over-time too, and when those 14 missing police officers were replaced, that was unlikely to lower the police budget very much, but I digress).

Up until this point in the narrative, things have gone about as well as one would hope in a representative democracy. A citizen, who took the trouble to educate himself as best he could about a cost to all taxpayers, brought that concern to his elected officials in the hope of spurring a desired course of action.

The elected official responded that the local government had taken a look at the matter and did not quite see it the way the citizen did.

And then, with one word, "attack," the whole thing goes off the rails.

Instead of thanking the citizen for caring enough to take an interest in his borough, and go to the trouble to research a potential problem and form an informed opinion instead of just showing up to complain "my taxes are too high" as so many other speakers -- who are often thanked for their input -- often do, the elected council categorizes the exchange of views as "a direct attack."

We know why.

Because the citizen raising those concerns is Tom Hylton.

And because Tom Hylton, a citizen of the borough of Pottstown, so often raises matters of public concern -- concerns elected and appointed officials often would rather not confront --  they respond defensively.

To be fair, the borough weathers a pretty staggering amount of criticism, whether in The Mercury, word of mouth, or the seemingly endless number of borough critics living in cyber space. Being a little defensive is understandable.

Nevertheless, the job council members are elected to do is to represent the citizens of Pottstown in overseeing their local government.

And there seems no more striking example of the kind of oversight with which they are charged than to hear concerns from the citizens about the costs of that government and its impact on the taxes they pay.

That's the job elected officials asked voters to give them, so they had better learn to like it.

But, "if you’re attacking the borough, or the finance department, you’re attacking me,” is how Dan Weand, the elected official, chose to respond, paradoxically, right after he said "I love getting comments."

Does that strike you as the kind of response that will encourage other citizens to get informed on subjects, and bring their informed concerns to their elected officials for a public airing, as those officials so often say they so desperately want?

Or rather, does it demonstrate exactly the kind of response that might convince a concerned citizen they shouldn't even bother because "they're never going to listen to what I have to say anyway."

While it is admirable to defend the borough's employees and endeavor to correct what you see as an inaccurate depiction of their pay, is it among the best practices for a local government to describe the raising of such inquiries or concerns by a citizen as "a direct attack?"

For goodness sake, if you can't show up at a public meeting and raise concerns about public spending without it being characterized as an attack, let's just do away with the pretense of living in a representative democracy.

One of the lesser quoted clauses of the First Amendment, I was recently reminded, prohibits the government from making any law that would abridge the right of the people "to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

While the elected borough council has passed no such law, as of yet anyway, the response would suggest council is not overly fond of citizens showing up to exercise their First Amendment rights -- particularly if they are Tom Hylton.

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