A bungled process

Published 9:18 am Saturday, February 19, 2011

From the acrimonious ending to Franklin’s courtship of the Navy for pilot training at the city’s airport, we hope the City Council will take some valuable lessons about transparency and accessibility.

What was bound to be a sensitive and controversial subject became more so because of the clumsy and secretive way that the council conducted its deliberations.

For two consecutive council meetings in January, members went behind closed doors to discuss a “contract” with the Navy that never existed. After the first closed meeting, the council, long after a large group of interested citizens had left City Hall, emerged and voted unanimously to continue discussions with the Navy. Two weeks later, without even mentioning a closed session on its published agenda, the council again retreated to a back room of City Hall for further discussion of the Navy plan.

Opponents, for good reason, became distrustful of the way city leaders were pursuing the project.

Council members further damaged public confidence this week by changing the ground rules for a public forum on the Navy plan. After saying in its initial press release that there might be some questions city officials could not answer immediately, the council informed citizens after they showed up at the Paul D. Camp Community College Regional Workforce Development Center that no questions would be answered at Monday night’s forum.

Under forum rules, citizens also were curiously confined to asking questions rather than voicing their opinions. This did not set well with citizens who felt like their voices had not been heard by the council through months of consideration of the Navy plan. At one point Monday night, after repeated complaints from citizens about the format, Mayor Jim Councill said he was “just following orders” by cutting off citizens in the middle of their remarks.

When the city’s top elected leader, who is accountable directly to the people, begins taking orders from staff members, the metaphorical tail has begun wagging the dog.