Further into the decline

Published 8:39 am Monday, July 6, 2015

About a month ago, I got one wrong. In “Welcome to the decline,” I presented an argument about the apathy of the people of Franklin.

There are many elements that suggest the conclusion made, such as the fact that residents are often absent from school board and city council meetings. People are quite willing to be critical about issues, but it’s not quite clear what they are doing.

I’ve also witnessed something of a disconnect with the argument, even though many agreed with the apathy statement long before that column was written.

There is a great volunteer spirit in this community.

Hundreds will come out for important civic events that improve the quality of life. People are also very charitable. Look at the many scholarships that are given away; look at what the community has done to help Franklin Police Department’s Cpl. Al Herdeg, who suffered a life-changing injury; and countless other lives have been positively impacted over the years by this generosity.

While some folks just use Franklin as a bedroom and work and shop elsewhere, there are many others who care deeply about the quality of life here and do not shy away from volunteering time and money.

So if it’s not apathy, what is it? Civic disengagement.

There are barriers to get involved in government. You have to read and understand hundreds of pages of bureaucratic text with small type and foot notes. Your reward for trying to understand this is little pay, or even no pay. These two points alone prevent some folks from seeking to serve.

Then there is another barrier: A government clique exists in Franklin. If you are in the clique, your campaign is supported and organization heads pledge fealty to you like some sort of medieval system. They provide the backing of everyone connected to them, as plenty people don’t care enough to research candidates.

There are barriers to involvement. Having done a story on Citizens’ Time and spoken to many people recently about it, one big problem I’ve heard is that no one is listening. The school board and council members do not respond immediately, nor will they necessarily ever.

Yet, they will loudly draw attention to any praise. This ignoring of criticism is equally true amongst members of council. When topics that could be critical come up, another member of council is very likely to attempt changing the subject: often citing words that have become poison in my ears, “You are looking in the rearview mirror.”

It’s very important to look to the future, but if you don’t understand the past, you could end up repeating the same mistakes.

Getting things changed is borderline impossible. Every so often, a hero comes along who is truly passionate about something and puts up the fight necessary to impact the system.

It often takes years of time and a lot of personal finances going toward the legal fees and other expenses to make it happen. A lot of us are barely able to buy food to put on the table after paying the bills, so individually fighting the business interests that often create bad laws is out of the question.

Is it even worth your time? When it comes to voting on important issues, no matter how reasonable an argument the citizens make, many in Franklin feel like the politicians will not sway from what they were going to do anyway. Why bother wasting your gas, your time and your breath?

And if you do go to the meeting, between the agendas, the discussions and even the ads and often the stories in The Tidewater News, you often have to be trained in legalese or jargon to make sense of it.

Speaking of the newspaper, when leaders do bother to talk to us, we often let them get away with prepared statements that don’t completely address the issues.

We should hold them and ourselves to a higher standard, even if that means we more often have to print the dreaded so-and-so declined to comment. That at least shows how little they care if you are informed on the issues.

It all came into perspective when a member of the school board was put right back onto that board in business as usual clique fashion. This issue has been talked to death, so I will not repeat except where it concerns this topic, which is more about the boards as a whole than individuals.

Edna King could very well go on to have a positive impact on the system. But no matter what you think about how she will do in the future, it’s hard to deny she’s had a shaky past that has compromised the school board’s public trust. And that’s not just something many in Franklin have picked up on, as the Virginia Department of Education’s report cited a school board she led as part of the problem.

So, when members of council insulted my intelligence — and the intelligence of everyone who has watched the school board over her time — by saying it was about experience, her leadership, I started to feel the disengagement that many in Franklin feel. What’s the point if they are just going to do what they want to do and then insult us as they do it?

This is a mistake, though, and it’s one we need to overcome, together, because as a group we can make a difference.

Civic disengagement is not a problem specific to Franklin. It’s not intentional and the leaders are not taking advantage of it.

But the system that disengagement has created is one that features patronage, racial problems, pettiness and a place where it is difficult to get anything meaningful done.

Some of them are also disconnected with the people who elected them and rely too much on city management and the superintendent, rarely if ever challenging them. We saw where a lack of challenge to the leadership style of Dr. Michelle Belle got us: ideas that knocked us backward ultimately won the day.

Now, I think highly of Randy Martin and Dr. Willie Bell, and their experience should be used.

But they shouldn’t be the ones making the final decisions for the future of Franklin — that should be you.

Cain Madden is the managing editor of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at 562-3187 or cain.madden@tidewaternews.com.