Recently, the Decatur City Council met in open session in the conference room of the Decatur Club, primarily to discuss some goals. I had a few people complain to me that the city council members should not be meeting away from the city council chambers because it made them look “suspicious” and “sneaky”. It must have been a slow week in finding something “suspicious” and “sneaky” because the open meeting’s time and place were announced to the media (including this newspaper) by the city clerk in plenty of time before the session was held as is always the case to comply with legal requirements.
One of the complainers asked me, “What could they discuss at the Decatur Club that they can’t discuss in council chambers?” It was not so much about what was discussed but the more relaxed environment in which it was approached that should be appreciated. Also, there is no formal vote on anything. That would take place at the regular council meeting in full view of the public, reporters and cameras. Essentially, the open meeting is a brainstorming session where ideas and goals can be discussed and some direction given to the city manager and staff on where the council wants to go — and when.
• DURING the years I served as mayor we had several informal open meetings at different locations. I remember a few being held at gathering places in neighborhoods, some in the large banquet room of a westend restaurant where we snacked on a few pieces of pizza as we discussed goals and ideas. I don’t remember any food fights over any disagreements. Those were relaxed, informal gatherings where we got to know the feelings of each other on issues that many times didn’t surface during a formal council meeting. We also met at the Decatur Club conference room a few times, at the public library’s large conference room and even had some sessions at Millikin University that included some pointers from a business professor on setting goals.
I always thought those sessions were very productive. In fact, there was some talk about holding a “retreat” for the mayor, council members and top city staff, in order to build on the informal sessions, but it never materialized because a few of the council members indicated they would not attend. Maybe they thought that if we got too informal we might kill each other! (I’m joking, of course.)
• DURING those informal sessions away from the council chambers (and television cameras and audiences) I noticed, whenever a few members of the public would sit in on the sessions that a couple of council members would start playing to the audience like it was a council meeting. Whenever no one from the public attended, the informal meetings were much more relaxed and ideas more freely given — at least as I observed it.
• ONE OF the big problems that hampered a lot of what could have been done in moving forward more rapidly during those years, in my opinion, was that a few members of the council did not like the city manager and were almost automatically against anything that he would suggest or do. I once asked City Manager Garman if he ever thought about suggesting to council something opposite of what he really wanted the council to do, to get the votes of those who were against about everything he suggested. He said he thought about it, and to his credit said, “But I couldn’t do that. It is not professional.”
• THERE IS no question that city government runs extremely well, when the mayor, city council members and the city manager are on the same page when moving ahead with any project and on any issue. That doesn’t mean there won’t be disagreements, but it does mean those disagreements are all about the common good for the community and not based on conflicting personalities. The city manager does not have a vote on council, but he does have (or should have) the expertise to offer professional opinions on the best way to achieve council’s goals. That’s the reason that formal and informal discussions need to take place to get a full perspective of where the council is headed and how to get there.
• OBVIOUSLY, after being both editor and publisher of this newspaper for decades, I know something about making decisions that impact others. As my staff will tell you, although I am willing to listen to all ideas, when it comes to this newspaper, I will make the final decision. I was never at a loss in having ideas for making the community better because they were formed after many years of being editor of the Trib. The struggle was, as is usually the case in all public bodies, in getting other members of council (at least three besides myself to have a majority vote) and sharing with the public those ideas and getting feedback that often enhanced those ideas.
One way to help accomplish that was meeting individually with each council member, along with the city manager, to discuss issues, ideas and goals on a personal one-on-one basis. I was able to do that with most of the members of council and hear their ideas and concerns that could later be brought before the public during a council meeting. However, there were a couple members of council over the years who would not meet with the city manager and myself because they didn’t like the city manager. There was never a “convenient time” for them to meet and in one case, a councilman wouldn’t meet because he hadn’t been the first one to be contacted about a private meeting.
• ALTHOUGH I covered city council meetings as editor of this newspaper for many years before being elected mayor, I’ll have to admit that I was somewhat surprised how often pettiness, personal agendas and liking or not liking the city manager (or another council member) played a big role in some of the decisions that were made about moving, or not moving, Decatur ahead. Sometimes, when someone is elected to a public position like city council, that person believes that’s their seat to do anything they want to do with the power they have been given by the voters.
The truth is that seat is the people’s seat and a mayor or city council member is there to represent the people and make judgements on how to vote on agenda ideas based on what is good for the whole community, not what is good for that councilman, or mayor, or any other public official.
• THIS WEEK’S “Viewpoint” on page 3 of the print and online editions of the Decatur Tribune, is related to the photo above when I portrayed President Theodore Roosevelt at Millikin’s Centennial Celebration 18 years ago. Patrick McDaniel, who was then working as a reporter for the Decatur Tribune, shot the photos — a few of which appeared in the Oct. 22, 2003, edition, which I was able to find after an extensive search. As you know, several years later, Pat, would be elected to the city council and served for a decade before deciding not to run for re-election in the last election.
• HERE IS what I wrote in my column about the event in the Oct. 22, 2003, edition: “I enjoyed portraying President Theodore Roosevelt during Millikin University’s Centennial Celebration cornerstone re-enactment Saturday morning next to, (where else?) the cornerstone location. Actually, I had to play Teddy R. without a moustache because the only one available for me to wear was going to make me look like a mixture of Judge Joe Brown and Butch Cassidy! I think the message of the day would have been lost once people got a look at that appearance!
Anyhooooo, I did have the hat, tie and vest that the 26th president wore on that day (okay, not exactly the same ones but similar in appearance). I think what really grabbed my attention in reading the words of Roosevelt from 100 years ago, was how inspiring the words were that he spoke. I guess it is because of modern media technology that politicians and public figures use a different “personal” style when speaking today. However, a century ago, when all a speaker had to hold the attention of the crowd was his voice, along with his delivery, the substance of what was said was not only informative but inspiring.
“Thanks to Next Media’s Joel Fletcher, who portrayed I. R. Mills, for really getting into his part on the stage. “When I unexpectedly turned and asked him to hold my hat before I gave my speech, Joel said, ‘Certainly, Mr. President’. Joel will be receiving a Tribune emmy for the best historic ad-lib with those three words.”
• I WAS looking forward to someday returning to Tuscany Steak and Pasta House on the northeast corner of Pershing and MLK when the pandemic is over and closed businesses are opening again. I guess that won’t be happening. When I drove by the location a few days ago, there was not anything left—except the rubble from the demolition of the building!
• ALSO, I noticed that the Ace Hardware store on North Main Street, near Pershing, was holding a “Going Out Of Business” sale. Sorry to see that store close down. Customers still have an Ace in Mount Zion to patronize.
• I WILL join Brian Byers on WSOY’s Byers & Co. at 7:00 a.m. Thursday (as I do every Thursday) to discuss the issues of the day impacting our community. I always enjoy the conversation and, apparently, from comments received at the Trib many of you enjoy the conversation, too!
• IT’S beginning to feel like fall out there with some cool mornings. Enjoy autumn and stay safe.