Open Government, Part III

This is, I guess, part of a series of posts about local government and the recent forceful removal of a citizen from a City Commission meeting for the citizen's attempt to continue speaking in violation of the City Commission's 3-minute rule for public comments. (See here, here, and here.)

Specifically, I want to follow up on a comment to an earlier post:

"I used to come to this site to read well reasoned criticism of our city government. Now, though, you seem to pull punches on almost everything (except the coal thing).

Are you afraid to criticize the Mayor? Are you afraid to criticize the commission. It seems like everyone but Lawton gets a pass.

Mayor Stebbins came to office on a promise of change and she has failed to live up to her promise. She used to be the "people's mayor." Remember all the time she spent commenting on the blogs? It was all about access.

Now its nothing. She put up some lame post at GreaterFalls about Alex Percic, but she hides on all the issues.

And you don't say shit to her or about her? Don't any of the local bloggers have any guts any more? Your about as bad as the Tribune."

I have a few thoughts on this. First, as compared to my analysis of what the City staff does, I do somewhat pull my punches with respect to the Commission and the Mayor. For all intents and purposes, these people are volunteers trying to do the right thing by our community. The fact that I might disagree with them on a particular issue does not make them "wrong" or "bad."

That does not mean, though, that I think they are beyond criticism. For example, I think that our Commission needs to wrest control of this City back from the bureaucrats. The Commission is supposed to create policy and lead the community, not wait for and react to the suggestions of the City Manager. I do not think that this Commission leads. I think this Commission tends to view its role as approving or disapproving staff's suggestions. I would like someone to tell me about one big initiative in the last 5 years that originated solely with the City Commission and that was then delegated to staff for completion. I cannot think of one, but I hope to be proven wrong.

Second, I agree that Dona Stebbins has governed differently than I anticipated. She spent a great deal of time on the blogs before her election as the blogs offered her a base of support. She comments much less now, although this might be due to greater time commitments as Mayor. Conversely, it might be that she finds the blogs more critical now and tends to avoid the potential confrontation. And it might be for a myriad of other reasons.

Nevertheless, I think that, had our prior Mayor suggested a 3-minute speaking rule, Candidate Stebbins would have been apoplectic. No doubt the view from the other side of the lectern is different, but I would like to see more consistency in her governance.

I also think that, had our prior Mayor had a critic removed during a critique, Candidate Stebbins would have been highly critical of such an action.

I would like to see Mayor Stebbins take the critic's allegations head-on. Apparently some on the Commission referred to the Mayor's "friends" as ready and willing to take over the animal shelter. Rather than attack the critic, I think Mayor Stebbins should fully explain her motivations and relationships in this process, and let us all judge why everything is above-board and appropriate.

She can certainly post it here, and I am sure the Tribune would allow her to do so as well. I, for one, am curious why it is important for the City of Great Falls to spend an additional $330,000.00 per year to run the animal shelter, especially in light of the recently announced tax increase.

I think one can fairly question, too, how it is that 5 diverse people such as our City Commission can agree unanimously so often. Not that I want a cantankerous board, but there seems to be so much consensus.

One other suggestion that has been made over the years is that the City Commission 'rubber stamps' Manager Lawton's plans because things are done in the back room. I have wondered whether, perhaps, if the public were privy to all the same information as the Commission, would the Commission's actions seem more measured? If true, though, that would be a sad state of affairs indeed. There is very, very little "confidential information" in government.

Yet, my long journey through the Freedom of Information Act requests has led me to believe that many in city government wish we would just butt the hell out. The conspicuous lack of support I and others have received from the Commission and the Mayor in trying to obtain public information troubles me. (By the way, the City Commission is not alone in this. I am currently looking into another government entity that thinks public records should be "confidential." More to come.)

To me, it really comes down to leadership. The people we vote for need to do more than serve as an approving entity for unelected City employees. Perhaps with the retirement of a strong city manager, our City Commission can once again seize control of the reins of our local government.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Though many of us desire to be of good, ethical and moral character in any deliberation process, a dynamic occurs that can sway even the best intentioned of individuals regardless of educational or financial background. Irving Janis invented the term groupthink to define an apparent unanimous decision when one or more members actually has a dissenting opinion but conforms to the perceived desires of the group. Of his research Groupthink (1972), Lybrand, Dobson & Solomon write:

"Janis notes individuals in groups tend to suppress their more idiosyncratic beliefs in the interest of achieving group consensus. Those whose opinions start out in conflict with that of the majority are put under various forms of social pressure – from subtle to blatant – to bring their opinions into line with the dominant thinking of the group. In some interesting cases, individuals with ideas in conflict with the majority can sometimes persuade the majority to “flip,” thereby creating a new center of gravity to which the others feel compelled to conform. While not the norm, this shift does occur in cases in which the evidence is less than fully convincing and the jurors’ commitment to their positions is shallow." (Lybrand, Dobson, & Solomon, no date)

The Commission/Mayoral collaboration changes through the public dynamic of the citizen's right to comment on issues. But several patterns seem to emerge in the Great Falls dynamic of collaborative deliberations: 1) Agendas may or may not already be established so that 2) groupthink can occur depending upon the strength of one individual in the collaborative and 3) collaborative dynamics change if even one person leaves the discussion to pursue a different agenda. The logical question which begs to be asked deals with accountability in a collaborative deliberation.

When considering ethical responsibility, who takes credit for the success or failure of the collaborative decision?


DOAR: http://www.doar.com/

Lybrand, S., Dobson, Jim., & Solomon, S. H., (No date)

JuryThink: The Social Psychology of Group Deliberation, Retrieved from the World Wide Web September 10, 2004: http://www.doar.com/resource/PDF/JuryThink.pdf