Barter plan better, but still troubling

To the Editor,

I have mixed feelings about the latest Spencer proposal. On the one hand, the Council’s unanimous and inevitable vote to support formalizing and finalizing the latest draft proposal heralds the beginning of a promising joint venture that, hopefully, will move the city forward in a positive and more unified direction.

On the other hand, the inclusion of several million dollars (over a five-year period) in “expansion support” funding from the city to Barter Theatre will establish a decidedly dangerous precedent of creating a ‘business welfare’ climate in the City of Mount Airy.

Such a precedent bodes poorly for the city’s future interactions with businesses seeking to open their doors or keep their doors open. Regardless of what euphemism is used, “expansion support” is a cost of doing business that belongs solely in the lap of the business entity itself – not city taxpayers.

That being said, the latest proposal represents an overwhelmingly significant improvement over the financial recklessness of the initial plan. Fortunately, due to the courageous, combined and sustained outcry from several individuals and groups – including, but not limited to, Commissioners Jim Armbrister and Jon Cawley, as well as the Committee for Transparency in Mount Airy – the city was prompted to create an ad hoc group to review the initial plan and offer suggestions for improvement.

Fortunately, that ad hoc team included Gene Rees, Barry Schneider and Bryan Grote – who collectively applied their strategic business acumen and polished people skills into transforming a lemon of a deal into a revised framework that significantly reduced exposure to the city. In large part, I believe their efforts were remarkably successful – with the exception of the aforementioned ‘business welfare’ aspect that continues to inappropriately assign unwarranted financial liability and risk to the city.

Moving beyond “the deal,” there remains one very troubling theme that continues to pervade and diminish the whole of the City Council – namely, a lack of honest and effective communication — both among council members themselves and between the council and the citizenry.

Indeed, in just the past few days, we have again witnessed the results of that failure to communicate as we have read conflicting newspaper accounts of whether the Committee for Transparency’s recommendations were ever part of the recently-presented “new” proposal – even though that proposal was championed at the August 2 council meeting as the byproduct of recommendations from both the ad hoc team and the Committee for Transparency.

It’s disheartening, to say the least, that city taxpayers do not receive, on a regular and timely basis, open and honest communications from our local elected officials. Instead, we seem to be the recipients of shadowy half-truths, untruths, and not-quite-whole truths that the council decides to spit out to quiet the masses.

As we’ve seen, the council’s inability or refusal to share information even among themselves leads to chaos, confusion, contempt, and, ultimately, poor decision-making and/or inactivity. By the same token, a lack of effective communication between city council and the community is equally disruptive and leads to similar negative outcomes – including a lack of trust in elected officials.

It should be a top priority of the city council to share real information, in real time, with all citizens utilizing a variety of print and digital resources, as well as council meetings — where public opinion is genuinely solicited prior to votes being cast. In addition, each and every member of the city council should make his or her opinion known, proactively, as it relates to issues being discussed and voted upon. If any member of the city council cannot or will not share their thinking upfront, then they don’t belong at the table.

I implore all council members to use the “revised” Spencer proposal as a vehicle by which they can begin to communicate openly and honestly with one another … and with the community. I also encourage the council to further reduce the city’s financial liability for the Barter Theatre annex by eliminating any so-called “expansion support” from future drafts of a final proposal.

Rebecca Harmon

Mount Airy