Home > Political Animal > Better communications

Better communications

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader

2017-01-24


New year, new president at City Council, where the gavel moves from the combative Russ Jehl to the affable Tom Didier, from fights with the administration to promises of cooperation and harmony — or so Mr. Didier promised opening his first meeting at the helm.

Within minutes, a sophomore councilman snarled a full-throated attack on the city attorney. Kumbaya turns to Korn.

Mr. Didier had made it a point to stress cooperation and decorum as his policy for a more productive, less confrontational year. He should have emphasized a paragraph from our city code that outlaws ad hominem attacks, as well as impugning the motives of others. The code reference applies specifically to intra-councilman decorum, but over the
many years has evolved to include interchanges with city employees testifying before council.

A councilman breached that level of decorum in a testy January 8th attack on City Attorney Carol Helton. Unfortunately, Mr. Didier, still humming Kumbaya, failed to gavel the breech of rules, or to give his colleague a yellow card. Call it a bad
start to the dawning of the neo-Aquarian Age.

Rules of decorum are there for a number of reasons, principally to keep the discussion focused on issues, not personalities. More business can be accomplished that way. In the long run, polite decorum reduces the likelihood of back-stabbing or revenge fueled ambushes. The councilman might find himself on a committee with Mrs. Helton in the
near future, or in a dimly lit alley. Years ago, when Liz Brown was on council, in the middle of one of her many enhanced interrogations of cowering, low-level city employees, Councilman Glynn Hines quietly removed his pen from his pocket, and unobtrusively tapped the pen twice on the rosewood table. Few people noticed, but Mrs. Brown did. Sitting immediate to his left she slowly lowered her eyes to his pen, moderated her tone, and yielded her time to the next councilman in the queue.

Mr. Didier will do well to keep a tight lid on any sort of animosity directed toward the city attorney, city employee or the occasionally angry citizen. The nearly perfect example of proper decorum at today’s council table is Geoff Paddock, but a review of videos from 2010-2014 council meetings offers two superb role models in John Shoaff and Mitch Harper, both skilled masters at making a point without making it personal, or drawing blood.


Communications

Now, in defense of the councilman’s rant, he highlighted a fundamental problem in the Henry Administrations: poor communications. Not that John Perlich, the city’s press secretary, nor his counterpart at City Utilities, Frank Suarez, are not stellar. They are, fairly deluging the media with information. Both are the best you will find, and superb in keeping the media informed. But the Administration has not done so well in structuring a communications plan that builds two-way communications with citizens. In fact, it was better a decade ago.

Attorney Helton, it was charged, cunningly excluded the key stakeholder in a certain labor negotiation policy discussion, thus leading to a disagreement with union reps. This eventually wound its way to council, progressing from mole hill to mountain, and finally claimed the precious time of the nine wise men. In short, it was charged, she caused lots of trouble that could have been averted with a cc. Perhaps it was a Machiavellian plot, or just sloppy communications. She chose not to defend her actions at council.

In other celebrated cases, the administration has either failed to (or intended not to) inform the community; the Pearl Harbor-esque approach to northeast annexation is one example. The surprise announcement angered the local institutional elite who rallied opposition and smacked down the administration’s effort.

The indifference shown to south side neighborhoods vis-a-vis the Brightpoint fiasco was another communications failing of a different feather. In this case the brawl developed in great part because the system to communicate with neighborhoods failed. The effected neighborhoods were simply blindsided.

Once upon a time there were four neighborhood advocates who worked to foster two-way communications on the dizzying array of matters that impact each neighborhood. Council, in their lust to cut budget with scant concern for the implications, reduced the number of neighborhood advocates to two, then one, who the Henry Administration converted to a half-time (.5) position titled “liaison.” No longer can the position be seen as pro-active out reach; rather it is now more akin to “I’ll try to get back with you this week, maybe.”

Consequently, neighborhoods are not informed of the major projects that will fundamentally affect their lives.

In another failure to communicate, low-power cell towers are sprouting in front yards across the city. Did the city provide the first bit of warning? Nope. Could they? Perhaps. But systematic, automated outreach does not exist. Public notice came from gumshoe Kevin Leininger in The News-Sentinel, responding to a pissed citizen who arose one sunny morning to find an unannounced, looming tower a few feet from his front door! More are popping up throughout the city as we speak.

Citizens have been left to their own devices to figure out who installed the towers, who authorized them, and what to do to remove the eyesores. Each is around thirty feet tall, a dining room-table-sized shiny aluminum box is mounted half way up, and an array of microwave transponders hover over nearby homes. If bacon spontaneously fries on your
countertop you might know the reason. The towers immediately give any leafy neighborhood that Mid-Century industrial look.

The mayor would certainly point to his award-winning 311 system that has succeeding admirably at taking citizen complaints and connecting citizens to the appropriate officials, but 311 is a one-way communications system.

First blame goes to the Henry Administration, which has constructed the communications system, but they are making the best of a bad hand dealt by our penny-wise and pound-foolish city council that revels in cutting department budgets as if it were some sport and government the visiting team.

The administration can do much better. But it takes a change in attitude, a re-orientation, and council’s support.

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