August 4, 2012 11:24:22 PM
I've been managing editor at the Dispatch for two months now, which hardly qualifies me an as expert on the community, I realize.
With that in mind, I've tried to exercise a bit of restraint when it comes to weighing in on the doings of various public bodies.
But restraint has never been my strong suit, I confess.
In two months, I have cast a caustic eye toward the Columbus Municipal School District, the Caledonia Board of Aldermen, our district attorney and, on a couple of occasions, the Columbus-Lowndes Convention & Visitors Bureau. I have my suspicions about a bunch of other "public servants,'' too. I suspect they will insist on getting their turn at some point.
The paradox is that, in those 60 days, I have come to love this place. I love the people - the normal people. I love the city's history, its quirkiness, its spirit.
Columbus is the kid with grass-stained knees, the one that doesn't come right away when mama calls him in for supper, the kid who is up to some sort of benign mischief because he's just too curious to behave himself. Columbus is the kid you are tempted to smack on the seat of the pants until he gives you that sly smile. And before you realize it, you are buying him ice cream instead.
Columbus is a good city with good people. The Friendly City. It's a city where black folks can get a fair shake. That's still a rarity in Mississippi, sadly.
Why is it then, that almost every public body in the city and county seems to suffer, in varying degrees, from some sort of dysfunction?
I have been here only 60 days, I know, but I am beginning to come to a conclusion: What Columbus lacks is leadership.
By contrast, what Columbus does seem to have in great quantities are officials whose primary efforts are devoted to gaining, maintaining or consolidating power. In every direction, I see bureaucrats and sycophants and would-be power brokers.
I realize there are officials who are civic-minded, people who are genuinely motivated to pursue the public's best interests. But they are in such a minority as to be almost irrelevant. They are swept along by the tide of selfish ambition that their voices are muted and their impact is negligible. They are eventually driven out of public service altogether, and we are all the worse for it. Only a few fighters remain, tilting valiantly, hopelessly, against the windmills of petty politics.
The "best" worst example of this is the Convention & Visitors Board, flawed both in form and function.
If you ever want to see an example of blatant political patronage, consider the make-up of this board, which this year is entrusted with 1.6 million of your tax dollars. The board is made up of appointees from the city and county and you need only to consider the means in which those board members are selected to serve. The city council doesn't even seem to bother creating the illusion that it is an honest or thoughtful process.
In its last appointment, the council sent Bernard Buckhalter to the CVB board as a representative of restaurants. There were only two candidates, which is revealing in itself in the sense that few folks bother playing a rigged game. The second candidate, Glen Baldwin, wasn't even given a hearing. The job was already taken by -- and this seems almost incredulous to imagine -- a person who does not even work in Columbus.
On Tuesday, Baldwin will appear before the council in an attempt to get an answer as to why he wasn't even considered. It will be interesting to compare his credentials for the job to Buckhalter, the man the council selected for the CVB spot. Baldwin is a long-time owner of a pair of Columbus restaurants. Buckhalter works at a Wendy's restaurant in Starkville. That will be an interesting discussion, I suspect.
When you put a board together in this fashion, I don't suppose anyone should be that surprised when it functions in a chaotic manner.
Early on, I stood in slack-jawed amazement as I learned that some of these same councilmen regularly appear before the CVB to request funding for events they run or organize.
A 4-year-old would recognize this as a blatant conflict of interest. This is not a difficult concept to grasp: An elected official should not be permitted to fund anything that is, for all practical purposes, a campaign event with taxpayer money doled out from a board that owes its position to the same elected official.
Where is the outrage? Maybe people have just become desensitized to that sort of thing. The executive director uses a CVB automobile for her own personal use. The Board attempts to hold meetings that do not provide proper public access. It approves its budget during a mid-week "work session" in Crawford, far from the prying eyes of the public.
Given what they are up to, I don't blame them for wanting to do business far from public scrutiny.
It appears to be a body accountable only to the politicians it placates with public money and the citizens, who don't even seem to notice or care how their tax-money, are being abused.
Columbus is a wonderful place.
It deserves better.
It will get that only when the public demands it.
The City Council meets Tuesday at 5 p.m. at the Municipal Complex. The next CVB meeting is at 4 p.m. on Aug. 15 at the CVB offices, located just south of the Tennessee Williams home.
A note: You will not be allowed in the room that the CVB meets in (a brazen violation of Mississippi's Open Meetings Act, but so what?) You can make your presence felt just the same.
It's time for that ... isn't it?
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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