March 5, 2011 by wcobserver
As our masthead proudly proclaims this paper serves “Greenland, West Fork, Winslow and the World.” In reporting the public business in the three towns and two school districts in Observerland, we attend a lot of meetings and one can’t help but compare the tone, temperament accomplishments of these different governmental bodies. Each has its own understandings of what is going on; a shared perspective on reality. Each city or school district has inherited both a physical and social history through which they interpret and evaluate the present and visualize the future. Each city council, school board, parks and planning commission has its own way of trying to manage chaos. Each of these organization’s values, norms, goals, and expectations, no matter how nuanced, is reflected in the line of action they take. This is what is referred to by social scientists as the organization’s “culture.”
The significance of that culture is derived through interaction and those involved always feel they are doing it the right way. But culture is dynamic, inherently symbolic and can get pretty fuzzy sometimes. Culture’s not a rule book. We suggest that looking at these groups through the lens of culture is useful in answering that basic journalistic question, “What’s going on here?”
Go to a council meeting in Greenland, West Fork, and Winslow and one can experience the different cultures. The Winslow (pop. 389) council has the longest serving council members. They gather around a big table with the mayor and clerk every month and conduct the city’s business. They are prepared, ask questions, respect each other’s opinions, deliberate and take action. It’s a beautiful thing.
In Greenland (pop.1,257) council members share an institutional memory of past times when conflict and dissention ruled. Geography, demographics, and close proximity to Fayetteville seemed to have produced a lot of growth issues. Overcoming those challenges and hammering out new ordinances that reflected a progressive vision for the town did not happen without some friction. But, they developed a value for separating personal friendships from the political head banging necessary to move the city forward. They’re doing pretty well.
West Fork (pop 2,313) is another matter. The town is staring into the abyss. But it prefers to see itself as a wholesome little bedroom community without a care in the world. In fact, the city is hemorrhaging water through aging pipes and has an outdated, overcapacity wastewater treatment system located in a flood zone. No one really knows if the town is broke or not because the audits are five years behind. The commercial activity is limited to half a dozen retail stores, two cafes, two banks and a few professional service business; not much tax base. The growth sector is in vacant commercial property and dilapidated residential houses.
The population has increased 13% since 2000. The sales tax revenue is projected to decrease $45,000 this year. The city does not have a functioning planning commission. They’re paying thousands of dollars annually for animal control and not collecting fines. The cost of a building permit is half what it is in surrounding towns. Many business license fees are overdue and go uncollected. Zoning laws are not enforced which results in unstable residential home values. There is not a single non-school or church related place for youth activity. West Fork is a town without a web site, newsletter or social media account (except Parks on Facebook.) To their credit, however, the city has managed to maintain fire and police service. Other city services; streets, water, sewer, business, personnel, contracts, animal control, building inspection, purchasing, and the final say on every aspect of city business has been handled by the long time de facto mayor of West Fork, Michael “Butch” Bartholomew. Dozens of elected council members and mayors have come and gone during his employment with the city.
The Observer has been reporting on West Fork council meetings for little over a year covering two administrations. Sometimes we wonder if those eight people sitting around the horse shoe really live in the same town. Sometimes it appears as though it’s not only their first night on the council but their first day in town. Some make an effort to know about the town but most of them are alarmingly unfamiliar with the workings of the city. Based on the questions they ask during meetings, we doubt if any have read the municipal code. (We wonder the same thing about the city attorney.) Some said they didn’t know there was a city prosecutor until he showed up at a meeting one night requesting a raise.
Prior to the Observer snooping around and griping on its opinion page a few months ago the Water Commission hadn’t met in over three years – the Police Commission in over a year. The parks commission realized last month they had two too many members. No one knew where the ordinance was that established their existence.
We have heard the council members wonder aloud, during meetings, if the city has a sign ordinance or the location of the recycle center. None seem to have reviewed the job descriptions of city employees. We asked two members last week if they were surprised to learn that the planning commission hadn’t met in over a year, both answered yes. Yet last week, the council spent a full fifteen minuets quizzing the parks director about numerous ball sports, upcoming “family fun days” and showed excited interest in decorating Easter eggs.
Why should they bother worrying about serious city affairs? They have a man taking care of things. “Go ask Butch,” has been the echoing refrain in the living memory of most residents.
Yes, the West Fork city council has a culture; a shared reality. It’s been this way a very long time and many people-important people- are convinced it’s the right way to do things. It’s comfortable. “We’ve always done it that way…That’s the way they do things in small towns… Change is scary.”
If the culture ever does change, it will change through interaction. A new mayor or community newspaper can’t change a culture. If you want to pull the city back from the abyss; if you want a responsive and accountable city government, then you’ll need to join the counterculture.
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