THOUGHTS FROM THE BACK OF THE ROOM
I try to attend Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) meetings whenever I can, either in person or through the live webcast provided through SLO-SPAN.org or through replays of previous meetings which are archived and available for viewing when time permits.
I’ve formed some impressions over the last few years – impressions of the Board, impressions of the issues, impressions of the CSD staff, and impressions of the community members who attend and participate on a regular basis, and members of the community who attend and participate when issues or events important to them are teed up for discussion.
The meeting that was held today, April 28th, had all the makings of a classic. A portion of the community, fueled by a series of communications that included official CCSD agenda packages, news reports from various sources, and most interestingly and impactful – Social Media. An amalgam of information – some accurate, some speculative, some clearly packaged to incite fervor, some innocently containing errors, and a whole lot of opinions, quickly formed and made larger through the immediacy of response that social media provides. There was some thoughtful discussion, serious probing questions and answers, and a huge amount of what I see as childish, mean-spirited and increasingly ugly personal attacks that turned an individual into the devil on earth. The game was 21st century telephone, where the story morphed slightly with every comment, where every number became a “fact”, where every theory became the gods-honest-truth, where every random statistic, report, website, and snippet of a news story was concatenated into a narrative that might make a great daytime TV show. A different viewpoint became a reason to throw down personal challenges. Opposite positions turned into “agendas.”
The meeting time drew close. The crowds gathered, folks engaging in serious-looking discussions. Handouts, binders, tablets and notepads flashed and bounced as last minute changes, questions, and speaking points were finalized. 30 minutes before the start of the meeting the library across the street was busy with folks researching, copying and preparing for their turn at the podium. I know because I was sitting there trying to get some work done!
The local television station’s logo appeared on a small SUV. Exciting! A general assignment reporter set up her gear, snagging interviews outside the Vet’s hall. Then, inside for more interviews, including a short session with two Board Members. Local print media was, as always front and center, ready to document the meeting. In addition to the beat reporter, the paper’s editor was also in attendance. I don’t know if there were other media representatives in the house, but I’m pretty sure there were a few of us “citizen journalists” in the audience.
I use that term semi-seriously as I don’t have an editor looking over my work and applying the scrutiny and standards of fairness and accuracy traditional media sources are supposed to follow. I say supposed, because just about every media report I’ve seen has contained either factual errors, blatant “spin”, or heavily unbalanced reporting that did not fairly represent the “whole story.” Even the TV reporter got a major fact wrong in her report on the 6 pm news. This whole paragraph represents this new blend of journalism – a mix of fact, opinion and spin that makes this my citizen journalist story, and not a professional journalist story. But still…
DEMOCRACY AT WORK.
The meeting was late getting started, as the Board President delayed the gavel in order to allow latecomers to arrive and settle in. Everyone expected the session to be contentious. After all, the reason for much of the passion revolved around something that gets the blood to boiling. Money, or more accurately compensation. A proposed employment contract for the General Manager was on the agenda and it had folks seeing red. Both literally and figuratively. Red ink dripping onto a community that has been under the pressure of increased rates for water and associated services. Red ink from significant investments in technology designed to alleviate the uncertainty of an unreliable water supply. Red – blooded rage over a proposal that would reward the General Manager with a healthy compensation package that would extend out several years. Red rage that anyone had the nerve to negotiate and accept a compensation package that reflected what he and his employers determined was competitive and fair. Red-hot emotions being stoked by other red hot emotions. That’s a lot of red!
Now, this pressure cooker might have popped but for one simple action. The Agenda item that was stoking all the passions was removed prior to the official meeting. I can speculate as to why, by I’ll just say that I believe it was pulled in response to all the red rage that was building up on social media, and probably being expressed directly or indirectly to the Board members. I personally sent the Board an email expressing my support for the General Manager and outlining why I thought the compensation package was fair. I’m sure I am not the only person on either side of the issue who wrote an email or made a phone call.
The public did get to comment, though at a much smaller level and without the full force of engagement that may have led to some closure for some parties. Maybe not – and maybe that opportunity will present itself in a future meeting.
There are a few ways to view the Board’s decision to pull the item and kick it down the road. Perhaps, seeing and feeling the passionate response from a portion of the community, they decided that they needed to revisit the contract. Perhaps they wanted to get more input from the larger community so they could feel comfortable that they were acting based on balanced feedback. Perhaps they feared the issue would further divide and damage the community already raw from past divisions. Perhaps they just lost their courage and decided that avoidance was an easier path. I find it pretty much unbelievable that every member of the board was not fully aware of the contract, it’s conditions and impacts and the potential negative reaction from part of the community. I suppose it is possible that they all didn’t have one or more discussions of the pact as it was being negotiated, finalized and presented to the GM for agreement. I personally don’t believe that for a second, but it’s possible! I think they felt the heat, and decided to retreat. Kind of a crappy thing to do for a couple of reasons.
First, it displayed a real weakness. If the board went through the process of bringing this agreement to this stage, they should have the courage to present it, discuss it with the community, take the heat, and cast their vote publicly, as is their responsibility.
Second, it deprived the community of the opportunity to have their say. There was a lot of work put in by a lot of people who were ready, willing and able to speak plainly and publicly. This action allowed people to “declare victory” – “look at us, we made the board cave! We defeated the evil greedy so-and-so who was ripping us off and colluding with secret cabals of developer overlords…” It gave some the “evidence” they need to convict everyone of every possible crime and misdemeanor, (voiced or inferred) imaginable.
Third – it pretty much threw the General Manager under the bus. Rather than defend their decision and make their case of why they felt he deserved the proposed compensation, it left him even more vulnerable to the ugly smears and insults he has been subjected to over this issue. Hey, if the Board won’t stand behind him, he must really be awful!
Fourth, it further diminished the legitimacy and authority of the Board, and to me portrayed them as round-heeled. Push them and they fall over backward. This perception grew into a certainty as the meeting progressed, and more and more people became increasingly more disrespectful to the rules of the meeting. Audience members talking out of turn, arguing with the Board President, interrupting other speakers, and generally acting like defiant children.
I support community involvement. I applaud political and civic activism. I admire people who take a step forward and lead in times that are difficult. It takes courage to engage in public, and courage to engage out of the limelight. Truth to power and all that. I lose interest and respect for all that when it crosses the line of reasonable engagement and becomes more about the person, or the opinion. It turns from an effort to drive change and fairness to an effort to win points. Sadly, that played out during the course of this meeting, and at the end it was just about a free-for-all.
I’ll wrap with my impressions of the Board, which came into a sharpness of focus today that I wasn’t really expecting. I think all the board members are good and decent people, and they each bring a real passion and commitment to public service. I don’t know why they do it – it is the ultimate example of a thankless job. So of course I’ll pile on with my own criticisms!
President Robinette is clearly driven by a sense of fairness, decency and order. It seems she is often treated with some degree of disrespect both by the community and her fellow Board members.
Director Bahringer seems to always be on the verge of breaking out into a swearing jag! He also tends to be a bit of a bulldog, which at times leads less than respectful behavior. He is a guy who likes to be in charge.
Director Sanders seems to be both incredibly well informed and incredibly thin-skinned. He often comes across as condescending and dismissive, which probably incites some unintended passion in community members.
Vice President Thompson – quiet. Can be overlooked, but when he does engage he seems to have his ducks aligned.
Director Rice – I used to think she was heart-on -her sleeve, deeply involved and committed to the community with a pragmatic yet hopeful outlook. After today my view has expanded to include a sense that she is more shrewd and calculated than I thought, and she is becoming more expert in managing and using the prevailing emotion on an issue.
The meeting has ended, but it is not even close to being over.