How to get public officials to respond to the citizens?

Leigh Touchton asked me,
Mr. Quarterman, what can we do, do we have to go to the state legislature to get a law passed to force these so-called public officials to answer questions and respond to the citizens?
First of all, my compliments to anyone such as Leigh Touchton who has been doing politics around here longer than me for asking my opinion, because that indicates they are pretty good at it and are probably asking many people their opinions.

My answer: carrots along with sticks, and shine some light! That all builds political capital, which will be needed for elections.

We need many people building a community doing many things. If I knew a simple answer that would change things magically overnight, I’d recommend it, but I don’t. I don’t even know if I know a long answer, but I’m pretty sure that any answer will require a community, because the root of the problem we have now is that a small group thinks it can act for the community without paying much attention to anybody else in the community.

It’s probably pretty obvious that one of the main things LAKE is doing is shining a flashlight in dark places. As Gretchen told Joe Pritchard years ago,

It’s like I’m going around with a flashlight without even knowing what I’m looking for.
Obviously other people and organizations are also doing that. The VDT, for example, has done some excellent reporting. Eventually maybe this will get an overhead light turned on in some rooms. More open records requests: LAKE has a little list, for those who want to help file some. More people asking local governments to video their own meetings and post them on the web.

More people videoing them anyway and putting them on the web, like George Rhynes is doing. Most people haven’t even heard of the Quitman 10 because the local media don’t cover them. George is doing it anyway! You may think a school board election in Brooks County doesn’t matter to you. But I agree with MLK:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!

The problem is not just the old boys trying to decide for everyone else. It’s also many different activist organizations uncoordinated with each other. Sure, we need uncluttered threads of argument for specific issues. But we also need coordination, or we only have uncoordinated pressure groups, when we need a community.

We need even more organizations getting involved. More people standing up and asking questions. More people calling their local officials. I did, and got some answers from some VLCIA board members. You all can, too. Those answers led to more questions, which is as it should be: dialog. You can all help promote community dialog by asking your own questions!

More people making news: VDT, WCTV, WALB are traditional news media. For them to report on something, there has to be news to report. That means controversy (such as VLCIA won’t release its minutes) or an event (such as students playing asthma victims).

For those who want Col. Ricketts to know about what Ashley Paulk said, sending him the VDT writeup is great, but also send him the video Alex Rowell took. Col. Ricketts is always wanting people to come to the VLCIA office to talk to him: take him up on his offer and schedule a meeting for interested parties to view that video with him. Not just one person; take a group (this is worth doing for any meeting with a public official). Take pictures of the meeting, and maybe even video it. If he schedules it, he can’t any longer claim not to know, or if anybody tries that, you’ve got the visual evidence. If he refuses to schedule it, that’s news.

Leigh Touchton wrote:

I sent Chairman Paulk a very nice thank you letter because I was thunderstruck at what he told us.
I stood up in the most recent County Commission meeting and complimented him and George Bennett for the same thing; there’s video, which will appear soon. If we want our elected and appointed officials to do the right thing, we need to commend them on doing it. That’s far more rare than most people think. Elected and appointed officials want their work to be appreciated. Sure, some parts of it need to be criticized, but other parts often are worth commending. That’s also part of community dialog. And it helps build a record for each public official, which could be relevant at the next election.

Speaking of sticks, we know Ashley Paulk doesn’t like sticks for example he said so when discussing T-SPLOST. It’s not just him: most people don’t like being told what to do.

Related to that is something Tim Carroll told me years ago: the most effective way to persuade decisionmakers in this community is to appeal to economics. Note why Ashley Paulk says the biomass plant won’t be built: there’s no business model because nobody will buy its product, its electricity. Yes, build the scientific case, the medical case, the moral case. But most of the officials and most of the electorate are going to be most influenced by the economic case. Anyone can deplore that if they wish. But do we want to be right, or do we also want to win?

For Leigh Touchton and the NAACP, a specific suggestion: Roy Copeland is very interested in Valdosta Small Emerging Business (VSEB), the program John Robinson has been promoting at Valdosta City Council meetings lately. Roy Copeland has asked me why NAACP doesn’t get more involved in promoting that program. Maybe there’s even a way to connect VSEB and USDA’s REAP. Hannah Solar is great, but there’s no reason even more local companies can’t do the same thing; Pete Marte knows this; I’ve had this discussion with him. Solar in south Georgia is a big enough opportunity that the pie will expand to have enough for many companies. Why not schedule a meeting with Roy Copeland and Leigh Touchton and Phyllis Stallworth and other interested parties to talk about these possibilities?

Sticks are sometimes needed, but carrots are needed even more. Most local officials see themselves as doing what’s best for the community. Their ideas of what that is may vary. But most of them actually do want to communicate with the community. Find something they’re working on and help them with it so that it will be better. Appeal to them where they are. Find mutual self-interest.

As Tom Call said:

I volunteer my time to make this board better.
Such people respond best to other people who are trying to make things better.

Some local elected and appointed officials are gradually becoming more communicative. Others will need to be replaced. Replacing them requires elections. Elections require building political capital for the things that need to be done.

The great thing about the protests against the biomass plant is that they include all sorts of people: young and old, black and white, college students and workers, and on and on. Activists working on other issues, such as education, risk falling victim to the old divide-and-conquer ploy of splitting opposition along lines of race or class or town vs. country. If that happens, the old regime wins and we (including the old boys) all lose. Even the old boys will profit more if they communicate with the community. Sometimes they need to be reminded of that. OK, not just sometimes; more like all the time.

Being against things isn’t enough. People don’t consistently vote against over time. People vote for solutions, and people, and visions. My vision is transparency in local government and communication among the community. What’s yours?

And yours? And you, over there! Pick one: Stand up in a local government meeting. Write a letter to the editor. Call your elected or appointed official. Write them a letter. Schedule a meeting. Tell us what happened. That last part is very important. Individuals alone will be defeated. A community together will, well, it will be a community!

This Tuesday, 17 May 2011, come to 2110 North Patterson Street and ask your Industrial Authority what you want to know. Don’t wait until then: call a VLCIA board member and ask them to put a vote on their agenda for what you want to decide. Follow up with a written letter (email or paper) because that will go into the public record, discoverable through open records requests, and they won’t be able to say nobody cared.

I want them to vote to publish their agendas and minutes on their own web site, and to do it before this month is out. What do you want them to do?


14 thoughts on “How to get public officials to respond to the citizens?

  1. Tim Carroll

    Very well said John. Very well said. If I may add just one other thing…..everyone needs to recognize all will not always agree on specific issues…and that it is OK. Being respectful of each others views and doing so in a civil manner helps keep communication going forward. It helps keep minds open to different views.

  2. Leigh Touchton

    Well Mr. Carroll, at least three of your fellow Board members and your Mayor don’t agree with your position, and I could give chapter and verse on the various ways they’ve made it clear….Mayor Fretti, Councilmen Vickers, Wright, and Yost arrested 15 citizens for not changing the subject and sitting down during CTBH, they certainly didn’t respect our opinions or engage us in a civil manner.
    In addition to the display of spleen from Councilman Yost at the last City Council meeting, I’m displeased with his most recent insults against specific individuals, which he delivered to Karen Noll when she recently met with him to discuss (among other things) his outburst about her children finding Council meetings boring. He even attacked Rev. John Robinson, a cancer survivor who lost his front teeth during chemo and can’t articulate as well as he used to, and yet he battles his cancer pain and comes to City Council and talks about VSEB and the lack of business on the Southside and the way a certain group of contractors built the MLK monument…he’s also a survivor of KKK attacks, federal marshals were called in to protect him when he took on a Florida agri-business and won, the man has fought battles most of us could never imagine, but Mr. Yost felt he could disrespect him for the way he speaks and his supposed “lack of intelligence.” Yost offered similar insults against George Rhynes, myself, and Rev. Rose.
    Then there’s Councilman Vickers’ recent comments about the biomass folks being nothing but rabble-rousers who want their names in the paper and the subsequent confrontation with Dr. Mark George and Rev. Rose over it….I could go on but I certainly hope you get my point. The citizens engaged you and your colleagues with respect and you and your collegues either insulted us or ignored us.
    While Deidra White is the only Council member who routinely comes in and out the front door and speaks to citizens in person (the rest of y’all scoot in and out the back) she has yet to hold the first Town Hall as she promised during her campaign. When Roy Taylor asked Council to hold Town Halls there was engagement from a couple on Council (in spite of the “rule” on non-engagement, which seems like a rule that Council invokes whenever they want)…there was some interest on holding a Town Hall but nothing has materialized.
    Lastly Mr. Carroll, when you state repeatedly that you will not deliver your position on any issue until you cast a vote then you lose the respect of many voters who want a responsive representative.
    I hope whoever runs against you will address the issue of responsive elected officials.

  3. Leigh Touchton

    I invite anyone who wants to participate in NAACP activities to take out a membership ($30 for the year, and it includes a subscription to the award-winning magazine, The Crisis) and attend our monthly meetings. All of our agendas are discussed and voted upon in standard parliamentary procedure meetings.

  4. Leigh Touchton

    I have to say one more thing to Mr. Carroll. It is not okay for “all to not agree.” There are some things that are morally indefensible, and that includes building a deadly polluting industry in the Southside community.
    That area of Lowndes county has already been designated an Environmental Justice community by the EPA. What that means is that black AND white people who live there are already suffering more than their fair share of pollution. In a community where the black infant mortality rate is twice as high as the white infant mortality rate, for Yost, Vickers, and Wright to say “we need jobs” and “the health risks are insignificant” is immoral and offensive and they ought to be ashamed. This is not a case of “you say tomaytoe, I say tomahtoe” and I am astonished at Mr. Carroll trying to frame it as such.
    As I said before, SHAME ON YOU.

  5. Tim Carroll

    It is clear that you missed the point I think Mr. Quarterman was making and that I was supporting.
    LAKE is a great tool for communicating. When you take a postion that you have the “holy grail of being right” and let all those who do not agree with it burn in hell…..just why would I or any other official want to continue a dialog with you?
    You close doors and minds with this approach…..why not work to keep them open?
    Michael and Karen Noll, John and Gretchen and others I have communicated with have had more impact on my thoughts about biomass than those that only want to burn me at the stake.

  6. Tim Carroll

    One other thing Ms Touchton – in answer to your original question posed to Mr. Quarterman…..just exactly what do you call what I have been doing here on LAKE? And just for the record – I have worked hard these past 4 years building a reputation for being accessible and responsive to my constituents. The list is long.

  7. Leigh Touchton

    What have you been doing on LAKE, Mr. Carroll, other than repeating that you won’t take a position until you cast a vote during a meeting?
    Let me explain it to our gentle readers so everyone is quite clear on the public record. There have been approximately 20 biomass presentations to Mr. Carroll and his colleagues that I have personally witnessed, and I imagine there have been more that took place when I wasn’t there. Mr. Carroll and his colleagues have been invited to numerous public forums hosted by WACE, Wiregrass Activists for Clean Energy, and I never saw Mr. Carroll at any of them. Mr. Carroll has received dozens of emails from concerned citizens on this subject, and he hasn’t responded to a single one of the WACE activists to my knowledge.
    In the past year I’ve hand delivered a half-dozen typed out letters to every Council member, no one including Mr. Carroll (my district representative)responded to any of them.
    In addition, Mr. Carroll and every other Council member were individually given a large and expensive portfolio of medical articles and position statments from New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of American Medical Association, American Lung Association, American Medical Association, American Cancer Society, numerous physicians and state medical groups which clearly explain the health and mortality risks of biomass incineration.
    Mr. Carroll, you have been quite frequently invited to “dialogue” with concerned citizens. I did not see you at any WACE events, did you attend any? I haven’t seen you make any Council Comments at any City Council meetings I attended, nor have I seen anything from you on this subject recorded in the minutes. Did you make any comments? Did you “break the engagement rule” as Mayor Fretti and Councilman Yost routinely do and ask any questions when those 20-plus presentations were being made at City Council meetings? Because you never asked a single question when I was there. We have been out front of City Hall a dozen times at least and you’ve never come out the front door and spoken to any of us, unlike Deidra White.
    Now I’m going to explain something to you one more time and maybe you’ll take the time to read this: there is overwhelming medical and scientific evidence that biomass incinerators kill people. In addition to the evidence, the EPA (that would be the federal regulatory agency) has designated the Southside community an Environmental Justice community. Have you looked this up yet? What that means is that people are sickening and dying from over-exposure to pollution.
    Now once again, this is not “tomaytoe/tomahtoe”, this is a life or death situation for the people living there, as well as the rest of our county. Councilman Yost has a child with asthma, there are 2 children with asthma in my neighborhood (we all live in your district) and the death rate due to asthma is 2-3 times higher for African-Americans and the black infant mortality rate here in Valdosta is twice as high and yet you are saying you should be respected for disagreeing with me about the seriousness of this situation?
    No, you should not be respected for disagreeing with me, you should be ashamed of yourself.

  8. Leigh Touchton

    Mr. Quarterman, I hope the Councilman will read this part of your essay: “Some local elected and appointed officials are gradually becoming more communicative. Others will need to be replaced.”

  9. wow

    From December 2009 Citizens to be Heard : Dan Davis, 1001 Cherry Creek Drive, stated that he wanted to quote Abraham Lincoln. “To sin by silence when one should protest makes cowards of men.”
    Isn’t he in Councilman Carroll’s district?

  10. wow

    Ms. Touchton, have you contacted Dan Davis? Maybe he could be convinced to run against Carroll.
    I started reading the minutes to count all the anti-biomass citiznes and I only got through the April 7 minutes: there were 9 people who told Council that the biomass plant was a bad idea. Robert Hall said he hoped God would have mercy on those Councilmen’s souls who must be in favor of biomass because they were all silent on the issue. (I presume so they wouldn’t burn in hell). I wonder if Carroll has Ms. Touchton confused with Robert Hall? They don’t look alike but they sound alike.
    Scott Orenstein stayed to the end to cast aspersions on the “community concern” of the anti-biomass crowd. This was after several of them had talked about steps they took to engage their Council reps. Mark George at VSU had a long history to share about the steps he took trying to get an answer from his rep, who never responded, the talk he had with Councilman Vickers, and discussions he had with Fretti and White. Fretti told him to hire an attorney. He said his taxes pay for George Talley.
    I say throw all the bums out, they all need to go. All of them.

  11. Tim Carroll

    John, thank you for creating this forum. Unfortunately, I am now convinced that this is more about bashing than it is about an open dialog. As one of only two elected officials to contribute to this site – it is clear this site is for citizens not elected officials. Thanks for the opportunity anyways.

  12. Leigh Touchton

    Hi wow,
    It’s amazing isn’t it? That certain elected officials think they are entitled to keep their seat and don’t have to respond to their constituents? As much as I respect Michael and Karen Noll and John and Gretchen Quarterman, they don’t live in Mr. Carroll’s district, I do. (The Nolls live in Mr. Yost’s district and the Quartermans live in the county.)
    I started going through the City Council public minutes (unlike the VLCIA, Council actually posts its minutes online) looking for citizens who spoke in favor of the biomass incinerator, so far all I saw was one (Orenstein) and really all he did was attack the anti-biomass group’s putative lack of community concern. Whoever is meeting with Mr. Carroll privately to tell him what a great project the biomass plant is obviously doesn’t believe in transparency in government; they ought to have the courage of their convictions to state their position publicly or go out there and canvass and get signatures in favor of it. Hundreds of signatures in opposition to it were collected, I collected dozens from Mr. Carroll’s district, and yet he thinks he “knows” what his district thinks about biomass? I handed those signatures to each member of Council including Mr. Carroll. I think it’s very disturbing that Mr. Carroll puts more credence in what is told to him in backroom chats than what citizens put in the public minutes during the actual Council meeting.
    I may not agree with Jack Kingston or Saxby Chambliss on much, but unlike Mr. Carroll, they have the decency to respond when I write them a letter, and they tell me the reasons for their position. They don’t tell voters “I will wait until the moment of the vote to let my constituents know how I feel”. Jack Kingston actually holds Town Halls, something Mr. Carroll has never done.
    wow, I don’t know Mr. Davis, but if he is a viable candidate and wants to talk to me, my phone number is 245-1009. I will be happy to pay the qualifying fees for a candidate in District 5 that I think has a good chance of unseating Mr. Carroll.

  13. Leigh Touchton

    Mr. Quarterman, now that the councilman has taken his leave, I would like to return to the original question I posed to you about what can we do to make these officials answer to their constituents? I was specifically referring to the Industrial Authority board, which as we both know is appointed, half by the City Council and half by the County Commission. These Industrial Authority boards were created by the state legislature, correct? Is there some way to get them elected rather than appointed? It seems to me that the appointments are similar to what Nathan Deal has been doing: rewarding his largest campaign contributors with tony appointments. I don’t agree that the majority on any Industrial Authority board do it for the spirit of volunterism, there are significant financial benefits to an appointment to the VLCIA for certain members.
    What got me thinking about approaching the state legislature was Mr. Ricketts’ comments to Mrs. Noll that he had no knowledge of what Chairman Paulk said in the Valdosta Daily Times. For our gentle readers who may not be following the story, Chairman Paulk told several of us directly that he received a phone call from Ricketts, Gupton, and Jennett asking him and the County Commission to be the “face of no” (my own metaphor) re: the biomass incinerator. When Mr. Ricketts told Mrs. Noll he had no knowledge of Chairman Paulk’s comments I was astonished. That was a bold disclaimer and unbelievable.
    So is it possible to change the way Industrial Authority boards are governed? They would have to be more responsive if they were elected rather than appointed. I’m concerned that no one in the VLCIA has any training on community health issues associated with various forms of industry, and I was astonished to learn that Brad Lofton’s salary was twice that of Allan Ricketts, a salary which should have guaranteed that the director knew how to research appropriately prior to endorsement of a course of action. Not only was he remiss in regards to the biomass incinerator, but he failed to follow due diligence on the ramifications of a private prison, and glaringly, the economics behind private prisons make them even bigger boondoggles for their communities than biomass incinerators.
    This may require a long range plan since our two local state officials (Carter and Golden) switched parties.

Comments are closed.