Diametric perspectives

Published 10:36 am Saturday, June 5, 2010

The disconnect between the leadership class and the grassroots is nothing new, nor is it unique to Western Tidewater.

The gulf, however, does seem to be growing.

Nationally, the Tea Party Movement’s success is due partly to a belief by a large segment of the citizenry that decisions inside the Beltway are made without regard for the interests of the average taxpayer. Wall Street has its powerful lobbyists. Entitlements are the sacred cow of federal spending. The many Americans who benefit from neither feel disenfranchised.

Closer to home, Walter Young Jr., vice chairman of the Southampton County Board of Supervisors, described his own “rude awakening” when 400 citizens — most of them angry — turned out for a public hearing on the county’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget and its politically toxic mix of large tax increases and cuts in school funding.

“I didn’t realize this board, including me, and our administrator were unreasonable, arrogant, unconcerned, overbearing and absolutely ridiculous until Monday night,” Young said a couple of nights later.

A little hyperbole aside, Young and his colleagues on the board seemed sincerely surprised by the citizen backlash.

Last week, the Franklin City Council, Southampton County Board of Supervisors and the board of Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc. met jointly and — with the exception of fly-in-the-ointment Greg McLemore, the Ward 3 city councilman-elect — spent the better part of the meeting reviewing their accomplishments and congratulating one another for a job well done on economic development.

Meantime, in an unscientific poll at www.thetidewaternews.com, respondents say overwhelmingly that the community’s job-creation program is broken.

In leadership circles, McLemore and Ward 6 Councilman-elect Don Blythe were characterized during the run-up to the recent Franklin municipal election as loose cannons who would be bad for the city. The voters then elected both — McLemore by a 2-to-1 margin.

How can two groups look at the same picture and see it so differently?

As one who communicates regularly with both groups — the leaders with whom I serve on boards and committees, and the citizens who read my newspaper and aren’t bashful about sharing their opinions — I have some theories.

Primarily, the two groups don’t talk to each other enough. Leaders talk to other leaders and develop a false sense of widespread satisfaction with what they’re doing. Many citizens fail to pay attention to what their leaders are doing until jolted by a tax increase or traumatic event like a mill closure. They complain of disenfranchisement but don’t take advantage of access to their government until it’s too late.

The public was invited to last week’s joint meeting on economic development and to a recent community briefing by the economic recovery task force, but few citizens attended.

Apathy? Skepticism? Some of both, I expect.

A businessman shared the story recently of his grandfather’s complaining to community leaders in the 1970s about the slow pace of economic development and being told, “Be patient. Big things are about to happen in Franklin.”

Four decades later, leadership’s message is the same.

I know several of those leaders well and respect them immensely. They are sincere in their belief that the right buttons are being pressed, that success is on the horizon.

The citizenry’s response: We’ll believe it when we see it.