We’re public servants and we serve the community. If we’re not listening to them, why are we here?

“We’re public servants and we serve the community.

If we’re not listenig to them, why are we here?”

By: Susan M. Halpern

(Addison councilmember 1992 – 99)

With this simple thought, Councilmember Bruce Arfsten crystallized a fundamental disconnect with the current administration’s approach to governance.  Under consideration was the Sam’s redevelopment project, opposed by the overwhelming majority of public participants in three key meetings (P&Z, Council I and Council II), as well as protesters who attended “information sessions” and even picketed to voice their opposition.  Bruce’s remarks were prompted by council dialog that followed a raucous public hearing at Council II, and that was far more focused on selling the plan (“How can I put you in a car an apartment complex today”) than it was on addressing the significant issues raised by the protesters.  Here’s the entirety of Bruce’s eloquent comments:

“In five years that I’ve served in this role . . . there hasn’t been anything to my memory that’s invoked this kind of interest and opposition.  And I think it’s incumbent on each and every one of us up here to listen to those voices.  Because we were all elected to serve them.  It’s not about me and what I think and what I think is best, like I said I was generally OK with the plan.  But I have to listen.  Because if we’re not listening to them, why are we here?  Who are we listening to?  I just don’t understand why some of us are trying to sell this to the community.  That’s not our role.  The person that needs to be selling this to the community is the developer, Mr. Liu, and he’s made a good presentation.  The [community] has said loud and clear: ‘No, we don’t want this.’  But we’re going to sit up here and try to sell it and say, no, these are all the many reasons why that I think that it’s better that we do this, and that we know better than you do.  And that’s just not right.  That’s not our role to do that.  We’re public servants and we serve the community. And I feel bad that you – that we’re doing this.  Because I see where this is going, and I’m just very disappointed.”

The Sam’s redevelopment exemplified the struggles of anyone disagreeing with the current council.  In this case, by an overwhelming margin, citizens participating in the three key meetings were unquestionably and vociferously opposed to the project.  And yet, members of the Council repeatedly claimed that the opposition was a minority position, and ultimately ignored the opposition.  The basis for the claim to have identified a contrary “majority” was never provided, despite several requests.  Seriously: was there a survey or poll in which those opposing this project were not included?  Despite the absence of any rational explanation, the opposition was nonetheless labeled as a “vocal minority.”

Meier reinforced this attitude, and otherwise made efforts to marginalize the opposition.  Meier claimed that the opposition was not present at an earlier public meeting held by a study group that proposed a concept plan for the Sam’s site. That wasn’t true, as there was no dispute that concerns about removal of the Beltway wall and inclusion of a street connecting Belt Line and Beltway – key components of the opposition to the present plan – were both raised at that committee’s public meeting.  Undeterred by the facts, Meier made his argument about alleged non-attendance in excruciating fashion at Council I, where the attending public was packed into a clearly too-small-for-the-expected-crowd Town Hall, and then forced to endure a lengthy meeting, unnecessarily prolonged by Meier’s trial-type of examination of staff.  Using leading and suggestive questions dripping with sarcasm, Meier chastised the opposition for supposedly not attending that concept plan meeting, even as he had to also acknowledge that the redevelopment proposal differed in significant ways from the concept plan.  More to the point, Meier’s suggestion was that if the opposition hadn’t protested (apparently to his satisfaction) then, it was just too late to have a place in the discussion.

Of course, the alleged “majority” that supposedly supported the redevelopment never showed up.  Even if you combine P&Z, Council I and Council II, the speakers in support barely broke double digits.  And consider that Council II was a Meier-orchestrated second “bite at the apple,” at which he unquestionably urged proponents to appear.  It didn’t work.  46 people spoke at Council II, a mere 7 in support.  The fact was that if there was a “majority” as Meier and others claimed, it was a decided no-show.  And yet, even as Meier so harshly chided the opposition regarding the committee meeting, there was nary a mention of the absence of the alleged “majority” at the three key meetings, including Council I and II.

It’s hard to view these facts and fail to notice the uneven treatment of those opposing the plan.

Meier was so desperate to demonstrate an alleged majority that he directed the City Secretary to read selected emails into the record.  Such a procedure is unprecedented and fraught with issues.  There was certainly no public notice of a procedure for submitting such emails.  And there was little doubt that the emails were solicited; two mentioned the same vacant Sam’s on Greenville Avenue in Dallas, evidencing coordination of content.  As well, the first email (in support, of course) was read for almost 4 ½ minutes, well beyond the 3 minute limit imposed on those who took the time to attend and waited patiently to be heard.  When former Councilmember Neil Resnik asked where the procedure was posted for submitting emails to be read, his question was pointedly ignored.

Opponents of the Meier-backed plan were also labeled in uncomplimentary ways in a clear effort to marginalize the substance of their comments.  I was personally shocked to hear that folks associated with Truth in Addison are referenced as “haters,” and noted one speaker who suggested that the opposition was rooted in dislike of the current mayor and council, and was based on “personal vendettas.”  It was apparently easier for some to ignore the substance of the opposition by applying such labels.

When several citizens stated that their votes in the upcoming May elections would be influenced by the stance taken by councilmembers on this proposal, at least two members of the council characterized these statements as “threats.”  That’s shocking.  Citizens have a right to base their votes on criteria of their own choosing.  Calling such statements “threats” evidences a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of council and the privilege of being an elected official.

When we criticize the actions of this mayor and council, there’s no doubt that we are also criticizing the actors.  But that’s the beauty of any democracy, and a fundamental premise on which our republic was founded.  And by the way, some of the dialog is important, particularly when we are all subjected to a one-sided version of events.  Don’t believe me?  Have a look at your tax bill and go back to the articles I’ve written about taxes and the tax rate.  Many of my warnings have come to pass.  Taxes are up more than 20% in just the last 5 years alone.  I hate to say “I told you so,” but, well, I TOLD YOU SO. Look at our tax rate, it is set above the rollback rate for the first time in Addison history.  I TOLD YOU SO.  This council has overspent the last two budgets by more than $2 million.  What?  You haven’t heard much about all that?  Well, that’s the problem with state-run media.  None of it exemplifies a healthy government, and that should be of concern to everyone, without regard to who you support in an election.  Bad behavior is bad behavior, and it shouldn’t be tolerated.

And yet, the double standard is there: those supporting the current administration seem to support anything they do.  The opposition to the Sam’s redevelopment was criticized for “fearmongering.”  And yet the coordinated emails that mentioned the empty Sam’s site over on Greenville were nothing less than fearmongering.  So was Meier’s suggestion that the site might be purchased by a 502(c)(3), and taken off the tax rolls altogether, the most unlikely scenario of all.  Where was the same criticism of these arguments?  Nowhere.

Is it so hard to see the double standard that so many of us find troubling?

At Council II, 39 of 46 speakers opposed the Sam’s redevelopment.  The opponents were an even larger percentage at Council I and P&Z.  In the end, none of it mattered.  All the meetings – Council II in particular – were a side show.  The result was predetermined and indeed, the motion itself appeared to have literally been prepared in advance.  The comments of the public were irrelevant and were ignored.

And that brings us back to Bruce’s comments, paraphrased slightly:

The members of the Council are public servants, and they serve the community, not the other way around.  It is incumbent on each of them to listen to the voices of the citizens, because they are elected to serve the citizens.  It’s not about them and what they think is best.  It’s not their job to “sell” projects to the community.  That’s not their role.  And to sit up there and say that they know better than the citizens do is just not right.

If the council isn’t listening to Addison’s citizens, then why are they there?  Who are they listening to?

Good for you, Bruce Arfsten, for properly recognizing your purpose as a public servant.  How unfortunate for Addison that others on the council did not seem to grasp these basic concepts.  What we witnessed was not government by, for and of the people.  It was government TO and AT the people.  It’s a bad governance model and it’s not healthy for Addison.