Saturday, May 28, 2005

May I Be the First to Say...


New Albanians have come to expect less from The Tribune, our almost-daily paper struggling to compete with the dominant metropolitan daily newspaper. I hear story after story of people who once subscribed but wearied of the paper and settled for the coverage offered by the mega-chain.

Perhaps its time to give the paper another look. Although The Tribune is offering a very reasonable subscription offer (call 944-6481), you can get your feet wet by picking up a copy from a newsstand to see how signs of improvement are showing.

Saturday's front page is a masterful representation of news delivery by a small local daily.

Leading the page is a six-column headline revealing that Kay Garry, the city controller, is no wallflower, and she will not sit idly while Council Member Bill Schmidt and his activist wife use surrogates to attack her. Headline: City official considering legal action after accusations.

At the last, and momentous, city council meeting, Schmidt and his minions launched a reprehensible attack on Mrs. Garry's integrity. There is no other word for it. The charges were baseless and mean-spirited. Under the now monotonous banner of "we don't know," a bitter city resident, taking her cues from a small-minded cadre of fellow believers, demanded that council make a criminal referral against Mrs. Garry for what turned out to be "what-if" spreadsheet entries.

As a side note for all those demanding the city be run like a business, the "what-if" spreadsheet is THE standard tool of budgeting and forecasting in business, just as it is in the specialized world of fund accounting (government and non-profit bookkeeping).

City Editor Amany Ali turned in a gem of a story that did more than simply recite pull quotes from both sides of this issue. She illuminated the underlying reality. Great work, Ms. Ali.

Headline: Farmer's Market opens today. I would quibble with the punctuation on that headline, but County Reporter Kyle Lowry put together a strong piece about this enterprise, which expects to be a major contributor to the downtown lifestyle in coming months, especially as the early harvest begins to come in. The addition of music and crafts, plus health screenings and more, should help get this market back on its feet. Kudos to Susan Kaempfer, the volunteer market coordinator and all the others who are giving their time to renew this market.

Headline: Camm trial moved back to Warrick County. Few could argue with The Tribune's choice to pull together this breaking news story from Indianapolis. Of the local papers, only The Tribune added local items to this mostly-AP story that surprised many with the pre-holiday ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court.

Headline: NAHS Theatre gets national spotlight, and more. It must have been difficult for The Tribune to watch proudly as the nation's preeminent newspaper built a feature story around one of the Trib's local beats. They could hardly run a headline like National newspaper explores local high school theatre program. Even though the New York Times feature was big news around here, taking note of a competitor's coverage isn't the type of thing a professional newspaper would do. Great recovery, Tribune editors, in recasting the story with real news that most people did not know beforehand.

Balancing the front page is a standard story from The Associated Press and Economics Writer Martin Crutsinger reporting growth in personal incomes nationally.

I've written before how I support the local paper and urge you to do so, too. An edition like Saturday's is one good reason.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

No Need to Speculate

Some find it remarkable that residents of New Albany have been visibly taking an interest in public affairs. Personally, I find it remarkable that it has taken this long.

First of all, the laziest argument is that politicians are all the same. It's not true. Sometimes the very nature of politics can shave off the sharp edges that bring a politician into the arena, and sometimes that formative process can produce negligence, self-serving, and corruption.

But to draw the conclusion that all politicians are the same (bad) is to abdicate personal responsibility for the common weal. In a representative democracy, it is individuals who create the forward momentum that improves our lives. An institution can't provide momentum, only inertia.

When I first came to the city, I saw a community with a sparkling historical heritage and vast potential. When I first opened my business, I discovered dozens, then hundreds, of people who maintained high standards in their personal lives, but were somewhat divorced from public affairs. It dawned on me that those who wanted progress in the city weren't waiting around for elected leaders to provide it.

No matter how dearly they might have wished for leadership from democratically elected politicians, it seemed they had become conditioned to expect little. A destructive loop had evolved where citizens expected little, while elected officials had become timid. Politicians were afraid to take strong positions for anything out of fear that they would become the latest target in the Luddites' ongoing game of "whack-a-mole." You know the game - any "mole" who raises up from the darkness gets whacked on the head with a mallet.

I have a core belief that the residents of New Albany have a sub-surface dream of greatness. They are not satisfied to watch the city become the haven of slumlords and meth labs. They are not satisfied with creeping blight and abandonment. Especially in the older residential parts of town, they have a dream of an urban lifestyle that they hold to, that they believe is achievable.

And they are hungry for leadership. Not everyone is cut out for service, but everyone who treasures this city is but one leader away from making their voices heard.

I believe there is a constituency for progess, a strong and powerful group of citizens who are ready to support leaders with a vision for the future, who will perk up and pay attention once again when a leader treats them with respect by explaining the alternatives to progress, finding creative solutions to our communal problems, and being bold enough to ask for our support.

Constituency for Progress, of which I am a member, believes that government does have a role to play in the rebirth of the city, perhaps the preeminent role, but clearly the lead role. Citizens are obligated to petition their elected and appointed representatives to achieve this goal. CFP is more than a group that so petitions, I assure you. But it is our activities in petitioning and monitoring the City Council that have been the subject of recent speculation and, I infer, criticism.

One member of the current City Council continues to stress that if citizens wish to be involved and to express opinions, they must first educate themselves. I agree wholeheartedly. But I would ask that council member "what next?"

Since arriving in this city just less than a year ago, I have sought to educate myself about this city, how it works, and how it is supposed to work. Many of my friends and new acquaintances, mostly longtime residents of this city and Southeast Indiana, have done the same. Those of us who are openly members of Constituency for Progress have carefully studied the issues (and the personalities) and continue to do so. When we speak, we make sure we know what we're talking about. When we don't know, we ask.

I believe the CFP has met that council member's requirements. And if we haven't obtained the right information, we invite that member to enlighten us. I have previously wondered aloud what secret information that council member possesses. Right now, the issue is the fiscal soundness of the city-owned sewer utility. That council member isn't speaking the truth, but because he disagrees with the CFP, he attempts (by implication, at least), to invoke a gag order, a de facto barrier to the right to petition, the right to assemble, the right to speak and write our opinions, the right to organize our fellow citizens, and the right to express our consciences and faiths. In short, he speaks as would a tyrant.

Another member of the city council publicly declares his doubts that CFP is a sustainable model. He says that, other than on single issues, groups like CFP flicker and fade. He may well be right. Entrenched politicians without vision rely on that dynamic. Their sentiment is often "just go away" and they count on the fact that frustration and fatigue will sap the energies of such groups.

The real issue facing this city is thus defined. CFP believes the constituency exists and will grow as its members begin to recognize each other and draw strength from each other. The member suspects it will either grow weary or be co-opted. More passively than the other member, this man, too, speaks as would a tyrant.

A newspaper maxim of enduring legend is the duty to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." These two council members grow too comfortable if these are their true sentiments.

As a side note, I have seen and heard from both men flashes of reasonableness and vision, so do not find them to be irredeemable. But their public utterances do not build faith in their leadership or in their belief in democracy. Each is from a different political party. Each stands in the way of a solution to the city's budget crisis astride their perches on the sewer board. And rather than showing vision, each relies on scare tactics and disinformation to achieve their as-yet unknowable goals. My diagnosis? Too much time in the echo chamber that is the domain of the multi-term council member, safe in the belief that obfuscation and distraction will see them through to yet another elected term.

Fortunately, one has promised the voters in his district that he will retire after this term. The other, according to the latest scuttlebutt, is determined to surrender his seat to seek higher office.

Remember our premise: Institutions don't create momentum - individuals do. CFP is less an institution than a group of individuals and families - individuals and families committed to New Albany no less than these council members, individuals and families that have invested their lives in this city, and individuals and families determined to find leaders who will speak out to support and complement the efforts of those who still dream of New Albany and greatness.

Randy Smith,