ICYMI: Where was the civic engagement?

Norfolk mermaidMy latest op-ed, title above, appeared in The Virginian-Pilot Thursday. The topic was the public hearing held Tuesday evening as a part of the Norfolk City Council meeting. I wasn’t able to physically be there – because of my teaching schedule this semester – but I rushed home to watch the live stream.(Entire video below.)

Sometimes, I think the live stream gives a better sense of things than actually being in the room. The images being broadcast were quite stark: those seating on the right, facing council, were mostly well-dressed businessmen, while those seated on the left were more casually dressed. When a speaker asked who supported moving ahead with the hotel-conference center project now were asked to stand, it was those on the right, for the most part, who did so. The optics of this – like so many things – was well-orchestrated, as were the comments offered.

Reviewing later the portion of the hearing that I missed, I was struck by council member Theresa Whibley’s remarks at the beginning of the hearing: she asked about a presentation from the city manager. Here was an opportunity to engage and inform the public on the particulars of the deal, but council punted.

As I said in my op-ed, civic engagement isn’t about holding public complaint sessions. And transparency isn’t about putting up a 117-page document for public consumption on Monday and expecting everyone to be ready to offer their opinion on Tuesday. Norfolk need only look to Portsmouth to see what a lack of transparency can get you.

I was appalled at the arrogance of some members of council. Nothing raises my hackles more than to be told “I know more than you do” about issues like this. Unless there’s a really, really good reason, as a citizen and taxpayer, I have the right to know the particulars – and you have the responsibility to enlighten me, as my favorite TJ quote, which graces the front page of my blog, says. The paternalistic nature of council is more appropriate to “Father Knows Best” than it is to governing our city. It just makes me sick.

Hats off to councilman Tommy Smigiel for holding a town hall meeting Monday night and for voting against this project. And while we don’t often agree, hats off to councilwoman Whibley for voicing the concerns of the public and for her motion to delay the vote. Too bad it takes more than two votes to get civic engagement into issues affecting those of us who are paying the bills.