I started covering local government when I joined the Coastal Point in 2004. With my assignment right off the bat to cover Bethany Beach, we had an ongoing joke that I really needed a cot in Bethany’s town hall, since I spent so much of my time there, attending everything from low-key committee meetings to public hearings and town council sessions, often late into the evening and early in the morning.
Since then, I’ve been assigned to cover nearly every town in the Coastal Point’s distribution area, and in those that I haven’t had as a regular beat, I’ve still occasionally covered a meeting here or there. I’ve likely spent more time in town meetings now than most town council members have or will in their entire lives — certainly more than most citizens will. After all that, I’d like to think I know how town government is supposed to work.
In the first weeks of my work as a “hard news” reporter, I was assigned to cover an Indian River school board meeting — my very first one. That just happened to be the night hundreds of people turned out to speak passionately on the issue of alleged religious discrimination in the school district. I thought then that I’d seen things get as heated and ugly as they likely ever would around here, shy of a military coup or a visit from Fred Phelps.
I even covered Sussex County government for a while, where critics, controversial subjects and heavy-handed politics are the norm.
Imagine my dismay when I discovered last year that I was wrong about things not getting uglier. And, moreover, that the takeover of sane, respectful and beneficent government by egocentric, agenda-driven and personal politics was happening in my own town.
Those of you who read our Ocean View coverage regularly may have noticed that, with a few exceptions, I stopped covering Ocean View a few months ago. That was at my own request, belatedly granted by Editor Darin McCann, after I admitted to both of us that I had become too strongly opinionated about and frustrated with the town’s politics to be fully comfortable covering it as a reporter anymore.
You cede any real sense of standing outside what you are witnessing at town hall when you acknowledge to yourself that you’re beyond frustration because a council member can’t see beyond his own ego to do more than smirk at other points of view or when you want to grab the gavel to remind people that they have to wait for their turn to talk.
We generally try to avoid having reporters cover the towns in which they live, just to eliminate any potential conflicts of this nature. And I’ve done my best in covering Ocean View to present objectively what actually happened at meetings and to give equal time to opinions on both sides of the issues — a challenge made easier because I seem to have a personal point of view that lies between the two sides.
We’ve had both praise and criticism from both sides in our coverage of Ocean View, which seems to suggest that we’ve done a pretty good job of being fair to everyone. However, having to continually disassociate myself from my job when speaking as an Ocean View citizen — and never doing so in public — just became too much. So I’ve covered Ocean View since that point only as absolutely necessary.
One of the most common questions I get from town council members in other towns these days is, “We’re not as bad as Ocean View, are we?” Or, after a particularly intense discussion of disparate points of view, “At least we’re not as bad as Ocean View.”
Each and every time, my answer to them — spoken or unspoken — has been, “No, you’re not.”
Now, having observed local politics longer than I have, Darin tells me that most of the towns around here have had unsettled periods in their town government at one point or another, where there were allegations of unethical behavior or where personality conflicts seemed to take center stage over real work for the citizens’ benefit. I’ve seen a few of those times, too, or dealt with the aftermaths thereof.
But, today, I truly cannot say I’ve ever seen anything like the behavior in Ocean View.
I don’t generally admit to members of other town councils — not even when they ask those questions about their own behavior — that I’m a resident of Ocean View.
In fact, those questions generally raise a sense of embarrassment in me, to be living in a town where people — albeit only some of them — are so disrespectful of each other that they can’t follow standard procedure for expressing their opinions in an orderly fashion, where the first response to a difference of opinion is a personal attack, where ethics complaints, lawsuits and letters to state officials about town government are more common than volunteers on town committees, and where I sometimes wonder if we don’t need more police at town meetings rather than on the streets.
There are some wonderful people here. Most of us, in fact. Some of those people are even serving in town government. Some of them support public safety by serving on the Neighborhood Watch or in the Citizens Auxiliary Patrol. Some of them are police officers. Others volunteer for local organizations. Others just show basic respect for their neighbors, no matter their opinions. Would that there were more of the latter, of late.
I had hopes when the town held its elections this spring that the apparent candor of council candidates about their own frustration with the town’s reputation and the conflicts meant that, no matter who was elected, a standard of fair play, respectful behavior, common courtesy, truthfulness, honest communication, lack of personal attacks and truly open-minded discussion was on the horizon.
Those hopes didn’t linger long after the election, when all those promises turned out to be wishful thinking, smoke screens for hidden agendas or just more politics as usual in a time when most candidates’ views are only seen in their eventual votes and actions and not in their campaign speeches.
If I had to pick one theme that I heard from Ocean View voters during the campaign, it was — coincidental to the dominant theme on the national political stage — a need for change. But I don’t think the biggest change most of them wanted was a move for town hall, police officers suddenly without regular transportation to work and ever-increasing layers of bureaucracy between themselves and the town’s daily functions.
No, what they wanted was to no longer be known as the laughingstocks of Delaware politics; a new era of respectful, self-disciplined town government; to not have to worry about fistfights at council meetings and neighbors yelling at neighbors about budget priorities. Certainly, if they even considered it possible, they wanted not to have to worry about harassment from the person down the street.
We didn’t get that. In fact, what was already bad has only gotten worse.
I want my votes back.
Here’s what else I do, and do not, want:
I may not want more police officers hired for a town that already has plenty and where minor infractions seem sometimes to get too much attention from the police, but I don’t want to cut back significantly on police protection in a time when the town is continuing to grow in year-round residents and traffic. Ideally, I’d like the officers we have used more efficiently — preferably by joining in with Millville so that both towns are adequately protected.
I don’t want police cruisers sitting, unused, en masse, five blocks from my house when they could be deterring crime 15 miles away and ensuring that the officer who was off-duty gets to my emergency two minutes quicker, with all his equipment. I’d rather he took the car home and took care of it like it was his own. These were the reasons South Bethany added a take-home policy a few years ago, with little controversy, despite the costs. That’s a meeting I covered, too.
I don’t want one of the best, most community-minded people in this town to have people saying they want him fired or pressuring him to quit his job when all he’s done is ask for the tools he feels he needs to protect them. If the council approved more than they wish they had, or more than the citizens wish they had, take it up with the council and consider retooling, not pillaging, a solid program.
I want my town employees to have sufficient room to do their jobs, sufficient pay for doing it, reasonable benefits — just the reasonable ones, mind you — and an environment in which quality work is expected and rewarded but not at the cost of poor morale and micromanagement by their bosses, including the citizens.
I don’t want that space to be found at the expense of other employees, or of everyone’s safety. That’s an issue I’ve seen raised in Fenwick Island and South Bethany alike, when talk turned to town hall and police space. I know police and town administration aren’t good bedfellows. I’ll sit outside at the park pavilion for a meeting in December if I have to, but it makes more sense to use the space we already have in town hall and rarely use.
I want fewer “studies” and more outside, independent opinions by experts on given subjects — and maybe just some plain common sense. And I want that before policy is drafted or even envisioned, so I know it’s truly objective and not tailored to support recommendations already made or plans already put forward. We’ve already learned about the costs of tailoring information to suit a pre-existing agenda, and I don’t think we want a repeat on a local scale.
I want citizens to truly keep up with happenings in the town and to take the chance offered them to give their input about town government, and for town officials to really listen to what they say. I don’t want a mob mentality where meetings are interrupted because no one can hear over the comments of the disgruntled or the cheering squad.
In fact, I want fewer disgruntled and less cheering squad. Government on a local scale shouldn’t be about the people doing the governing. It shouldn’t be about who you support or oppose but what you support or oppose. The problems in this town have happened, in part, because people take issues too personally and because the personalities think things are all about them.
Sitting at the council table shouldn’t mean checking to see whether the press is taking down your every word or whether your buddies are nodding their heads in agreement. It shouldn’t mean shouting down the guy who disagrees with you or implying that he’s a fool, a crook or a fascist. He’s likely none of those things, even if he disagrees with your well-informed opinion.
Government in a community of just 1,000 full-time residents shouldn’t mean war waged on the Opinion page of the local newspaper, trying to one-up the other guy or make him out to be less than you. It shouldn’t encourage the formation of watchdog groups, the holding of rallies for dissatisfied citizens or the mailing of anonymous letters.
And just because you won the election by a modest margin doesn’t mean you have a mandate for every policy that comes into your head after the votes are tallied. Most times, winning means that you have to listen to the other point of view and find compromise that will make all your constituents as happy as possible, not just the majority who voted for you on one day of the year.
I don’t want the minority — however large the majority is — to have to wait until the next election for some satisfaction of their goals. The majority may make the winning candidate, but that doesn’t mean the minority loses their right to representation. Nor does it mean that the people who sat on the fence lose their right to ask for the middle ground.
I want honesty, integrity and respectfulness restored to my town government. I find these things in most of the towns in this area, most of the time. Darin always says that he believes that most of our local council members have their towns’ best interests at heart, even if they disagree about those interests or how to achieve them. I think he’s right about that. I’m just not sure how many of those people are in Ocean View.
I want to trust what my council members tell me. I want to be able to rely on them to tell me not only the truth but the whole truth and not just the parts of the truth that serve their goals or that they deem to be something I need to know. I want them to tell me that truth as a neighbor, as a citizen and as a reporter, so I can spread accurate information to everyone else.
Most of all, I want Ocean View to be a town that I can be proud of, from its amenities and its infrastructure to its people and how its government operates. I don’t want to have the stories in the newspapers be about conflict, strife, revenge, personal attacks, allegations of ethics violations and harassment. I want them to be about people pulling together to find compromises that everyone can live with, even if we’re not all thrilled with them, all to make this the best place possible for all of us to live.
This is a thing I don’t just hope we can do but know we can do, if we all step back, get some perspective and really try. We haven’t pulled it off recently, but I’m hoping someday soon people will decide, as I have, that enough’s enough and move not just to have their views heard but to ensure the voice of everyone in the town can be heard and that the best interests of us all are what we’re working toward.