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Citizens Speak-Out: Council Refuses to Listen

Editorial: At first glance, mundane motions by "one side" , repeatedly voted down by "the other side" -- but what matters (or what should have mattered) was the forty members of the public and twenty-something voters who spoke up and were repeatedly ignored.

There has been a lot of controversy in the Village lately but, in many ways, this more in the public's interest than initially meets the eye. At first glance, the story seems to cover a number of mundane motions by "one side" of the Council, repeatedly voted down by the "the other side" of the Council -- but what matters (or what should have mattered) was the forty members of the public, and the twenty-something voters who wrote letters and yet, motion after motion proceeded as if none of the voters or citizens existed... In today's democracy, that seems a stunning story; and here's how it progressed.

On August 09, the Marvin Council majority added a "Resolution of Intent" to their meeting agenda. The Resolution called for a public hearing, along with a proposal to amend the Village Charter to include provisions that would allow the mayor the right to vote on all matters. Currently, like most other towns its size in North Carolina, the Mayor is only permitted to vote to break a tie. It may be important to note that this is not what the Resolution said. Initially, the 'Resolution' indicated a proposed change to "voting procedures". The framing of this issue was suspect, in that it masked the real intent of the proposed amendment. This is 'strike one' against democratic principle 'A' - maintain transparency so the public knows what their representatives are doing and can participate.

In an effort to encourage transparency, Mary Shkut argued the name of the ordinance should be amended to reflect the proposed intent. She further argued that if the Council felt comfortable with the change, they should feel equally comfortable changing the name to reflect what the resolution was 'actually' proposing, instead of hiding the intent behind vague terms. To his credit, Mayor Dispenziere agreed and the ordinance was properly renamed to reflect the intent.

The public hearing was called to occur during a Council work-session meeting, at 9:00 a.m. on a weekday morning. Given Mayor Pollino's inclination to defend the "sanctity" of work-session meetings (that they should be reserved for "working through issues and not major items") it seemed a disingenuous time to host a forum meant to encourage members of the public to attend and be heard. It turns out, the public agreed. Emails poured into Village Hall protesting the meeting being held during a weekday morning when many residents could not attend.

Residents voiced concerns around timing, motivation and transparency. No doubt, amending the Village Charter - what some might call the Village's 'constitution' - would seem to be a substantial Council action. Resident comments reflected just how strongly citizens felt about such an action being taken, without proper information or sincere efforts to 'hear from the public' on the issue.

The other theme that pervaded related to citizen participation. The process of amending a city charter is significant enough that the proposed amendments are usually found on an electoral ballot, and put to a vote of the people. In fact, there are at least four sections of the NC State Statutes dedicated to amending a city charter and all procedures that make a referendum available to the people, in some form or another. (NCGS §160A-102 - 160A-104)

Yet, the Council majority seemed oblivious to the raw nerve they had struck. Apparently neither the wave of emails, nor the crowded meeting room prompted them to re-consider the ill-conceived public meeting date or time, or the lack of a referendum for the proposed charter amendment.

As Councilor Mary Shkut pointed out, it was not just about hearing the public, it was also about 'starting the clock' on a procedure designed to provide citizens with enough time to begin referendum efforts - should they choose to do so. The clock, governing the process, begins once the public hearing is held.

Before hearing very poignant public hearing comments - which can be read here - Councilman Epps attempted to table, re-schedule and amend the meeting agenda, with the hope of providing citizens with the time they were requesting. Mary Shkut consistently facilitated by providing meeting rules that supported Epp's repeated efforts, despite Mayor Pollino's resistance. Mayor Pollino, who did all of the talking for "the other side" was not convinced.

In total, Mr. Epp's made four different motions trying to persuade the Council majority to slow down, listen to the public and reschedule the public hearing

Yet, each time the vote was held, Councilors Epps and Shkut voted in favor of providing the public with more time, Vandenberg and Dispenziere voted in opposition to the motion, and Mayor Pollino broke the tie to also vote in opposition. Therefore, the motion failed, each time, with a 3-2 vote.

In many ways, the consistent 2-2 split vote, with the Mayor immediately breaking the tie, in wholly partisanship fashion, seemed to illustrate exactly why the Charter Amendment being proposed was problematic. The motions on the table were not really about one "party" vs. "another party". The motions on the table were purely in the public's interest... The public - voters of the Village - had, in everyday they knew how, reached out to their Mayor and their representatives, asking to be represented. Yet, when the Mayor, the leader of the Village, the people's representative, was put in the "middle" of a two-to-two issue, he did not become the arbiter of compromise or reason, he did not defer to the will of the people who elected him. Instead, without hesitation he leapt to "his" side - the side on which his interests stood. It was a sad and disheartening display.

If the Mayor was hoping to convince voters that giving him the right to vote might be a good idea, the actions on display would certainly have worked against any effort. In the hands of this Mayor, and perhaps others, the 'right to vote on all matters' would simply serve to make the mayor another 'council member' --- and there would be no chance of retaining a leader on whom the people might count on, to be an arbiter of reason, compromise or public representation.

It became clear why the idea of granting a steady vote, to the wrong type of leadership vision, might become more problematic that we think.


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