Silly-seeming at first glance, issues like the speed bumps in Uptown Greenville, which were discussed at length during the February 11 meeting of the city council, provide an opportunity to review what council is supposed to be doing, and reflect on whether they are doing it.
“The Mayor and City Council,” reads the elected officials information on the city’s website, “are responsible for establishing general policies for the operation of the City… [emphasis added].”
This means, quite simply, that Greenville’s council and mayor are supposed to deliberate and set policy — in the full light light of day — and then get out of the way (yeah, we added that emphasis, too…), so the city manager and her team can implement it.
Council’s decision in November 2012 (see “Community Shelter Able to Make Improvements”) is a perfect example of this council making good policy, right out in the open, and then letting the policy be enacted.
Unfortunately, that example is the exception.
More often, this council and mayor have shown a propensity for flouting the public will and inserting themselves into the day-to-day operation of the city, always always always invoking “economic development” in attempting to justify hare-brained policy. Anyone paying attention (and we are) can see that the only economic development these policies are aimed at promoting is that of the same interests which have made Greenville’s downtown a family no-go zone for far too long, while keeping our most disadvantaged neighborhoods under their thumbs.
We refer specifically, of course, to the three-unrelated fiasco, an issue we’ve been all over and one which there’s no need to re-hash here – save one point: One big objective of any elected government body should be to keep the municipality it is serving from getting sued by its residents. This council? Not so much.
But back to the speed bumps. How did they become such a controversial topic for city council? More to come on that, after the mud-flinging.
Councilors Calvin Mercer and Dennis Mitchell, in council meetings and newsletters, have accused others of micromanaging the city staff.
What that accusation means is that some elected official, whether councilor or mayor, has overstepped the boundaries of responsible public service. The council’s job, remember, is to set the broad goals and policies for the city — and to do it in the public eye. It is also the council’s job to hire a competent city manager whom they trust to lead the nearly 800 employees who keep the city running (see the organizational chart here).
The council sets the policy. The staff implements it.
When the mayor or councilors take part in the day-to-day operations of the city, they have overstepped their bounds.
When the mayor or councilors deal directly with department heads or other staff instead of as a voting and public body, they have overstepped their bounds.
When the mayor or councilors work behind closed doors, they have overstepped their bounds.
Councilors Marion Blackburn and Mercer have both been vocal in opposition to the so-called speed “cushions”; each for different reasons.
The primary concern voiced by Blackburn is that there was not enough public input before the bumps were installed (seriously, for anyone who has driven over them, “cushions” is laughable, no matter what their manufacturer may want to call them). She would like for the report given at the council meeting explaining the need for them and the type chosen before installation to have been given before the bumps were put in, so the public could be aware of the changes about to take place. “Such a high visibility project needed a public airing,” she said at a recent council meeting.
In addition to talking about the high volume of negative feedback she’s received from her constituents, Blackburn has also talked about dangers to runners and bicyclists as a result of the bumps.
Taking yet another tack, Blackburn implied that instead of public safety, bar/private club owners are the driving force behind the devices. “Bar owners are the people who mainly spoke [during the meeting’s public comment period]. Let’s be open about the purpose.”
Three bar/private club owners or managers spoke in support of the bumps, as well as a couple of members of Uptown Greenville. Calling them good for pedestrians but bad for bicyclists, the chair of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission said the streets should be safe for everyone.
Mercer’s problem with the speed project lies not in the result but in the process. During the council meeting and then again in his newsletter, he laid out a list of trespasses by the mayor [emphasis is Mercer’s]:
1/28/12: This well-publicized lengthy email was addressed to then-Chief Anderson and all council members were copied, except Blackburn and Mercer.
In this email to Chief Anderson, Mayor Thomas said “There has to be a different approach downtown” and “You and I have had this discussion in detail …” Mayor Thomas then lists six things, one of which is “Replace the barriers with permanent speed bumps to control traffic and speed.”
The (very new to the job at the writing of the letter) mayor’s mistake is not that he has ideas for improving safety — we want to see concern that drives solutions from our officials. Rather the mistake is how he goes about sharing his ideas. The citizens need to see him operating openly in the ways prescribed by accountable and transparent governance. Quoting again from Mercer’s newsletter:
7/25/12: According to a staff memo, the mayor makes a “special request” (not in a public meeting) for staff to look into downtown traffic control.
8/29/12: According to a staff memo, a meeting was held among the mayor, the manager, four department heads, and five other staffers. This resulted in a multi-page report and, eventually, the speed cushions.
The minutes from this meeting do not show Thomas participating in any way during the meeting. They do show the staff having carefully and professionally considered options for improving safety. By all appearances, staff took the (albeit improperly delivered) guidance of the mayor and did with it exactly what they would have had the guidance come through appropriate channels — i.e., a vote at a public council meeting.
The 30-page report presented at the Feb. 11 meeting indicates the type of traffic calming device chosen and their locations were well thought out with input from city planners, traffic engineers, police, and fire/rescue; and were based on appropriate research. There is no indication that the staff was pressured into placing the speed bumps.
Though the results are innocuous, the point remains that Thomas’ actions were out of line with what we expect from our elected officials. Citizens shouldn’t be required to assume officials are acting in the best interests of the city, they should see it all clearly.
We have to trust our city staff. Trained traffic engineers, police, city planners — these folks are the experts when it comes to the need for and placement of traffic calming devices and other such matters. This is not to say the public should have no voice. Everything the city does is for the citizens, after all. Thoughtful input and feedback are important elements for a healthy community.
Furthermore, the mayor and city council have got to start trusting each other more. No elected official holds his or her seat because of any ill-will for the city or its people.
Councilor Mercer would do well to stop assuming all of the other councilors are trying to take advantage of their positions and do harm to the city and its residents. Just because councilors want to see options for, say, the golf course, doesn’t mean they’re ready to take the most extreme one. Of all the councilors, with his academic background, Mercer should be able to appreciate making decisions based on having all the facts and alternatives laid out.
Councilor Mitchell would do well to stop openly mocking Mercer’s views, whether in meetings or publicly on the internet, views which are inevitably shared by some of his own constituents. Such sarcasm from an elected official only serves to show utter disrespect for ideas that differ from his own. Mitchell has some good ideas and has shown a willingness to listen to the ideas of others, but his derisive stances overshadow the benefits he brings to council.
Mayor Thomas, clearly interested in progress for our city, would do well to stop throwing indirect insults at Blackburn and Mercer during council meetings. His annoyance with the councilors is apparent; his desire that Mercer stop questioning his motives understandable. But his methods are puerile and frankly make him come across as an indignant middle-schooler, high-handedly reacting to what he sees as his lesser in the school gym locker room. Not the approach to building bridges.
Most important, for these and all public officials: Keep public all actions which impact the public you serve.
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