A few thoughts on accountability

Ben Nelms's picture

Those of us who cover elected officials for a living sometimes see things that others miss. It’s not because we’re smart. It’s simply due to the exhaustive number of meetings we cover. Numbering in the hundreds, we see the dynamics, the relationships and the various ways the public is treated.

Given today’s endless complexities, I should say that most all our local governments do a pretty good job of maintaining accountability to the citizens. But it would be helpful if some elected citizens would remember their position in the scheme of things. Three examples come to mind.

The first is Fayetteville Mayor Ken Steele, whose several crude (I’m being nice) remarks to a woman at a recent council meeting were deplorable.

Whether Rebecca Eberhardt was right or wrong, he had no business cutting her off and addressing her in that tone of voice. Ken is very knowledgeable and a really good mayor, but threatening to hold Eberhardt “in contempt” for her statements later from her seat in defiance of his position on the agenda item was an insult to all citizens.

And just so you won’t misunderstand, this was not the first time citizens have been bullied from the elevated heights of this council table, including from some long-standing council members.

The only person that should have been threatened with contempt that night was Ken, who was in contempt of the citizenry.

Another example comes from Mayor Harold Logsdon, who was in attendance at a non-government meeting at PTC City Hall in late August.

I was almost surprised when, in a conversation about public comments at meetings, Harold seemed to prefer that only the residents of that municipality should make public comments at a council meeting.

He referenced biologist Dennis Chase as one of the ones who tried to tell the council “how to run our city,” adding that he later found out that Dennis was not a PTC resident.

I reminded him that there is no prohibition of any citizen addressing any elected body, something I would think a mayor would already be aware of.

But Harold continued, saying that he didn’t “have to allow” public comments at council meetings!

It was at that point I suggested that he might inform PTC residents about his notion prior to his November 2010 run for state insurance commissioner.

Okay, maybe it was over the top to amend my comment with a “Heil!” salute, though I think the only person to notice was his campaign manager.

There was also an instance last year when Fayette School Board Chairman Terri Smith cut off candidate Nicole File after her two minutes of addressing the board, yet Terri conspicuously allowed speakers before and after File to well exceed the established time limits.

These are examples of elected citizens who sometimes assume the posture of being a big fish in a little pond who have established, or perpetrated, their very own little kingdoms.

My comments are not meant to indict the knowledge or competence of any elected person, but rather to address the arrogance that we in the peanut gallery sometimes witness.

Some of our elected folks could take a lesson from Senoia Mayor Robert Belisle, who is as respectful of citizens’ diverse opinions as any person I’ve seen in 11 years of covering five county commissions and school boards and 17 city councils.

All that being said, it’s only fair to mention that some citizens, no one around here of course, seem to think it’s their mission to drive elected people crazy, with unfair demands and accusations leveled at them that they don’t always deserve. This is also dead wrong.

But on the main, there are all too many citizens who acquiesce to the occasional, not-so-subtle persuasive tactics of some elected citizens.

It is important to remember that people in elected office wield power only because you elected them, not because they were ordained by God. So why some citizens sit in silence in their presence is a source of constant amazement to me.

It is also important to remember that it is one thing to talk about the inadequacies of those in office, but it’s another to hold them accountable to the voters who put them in office.

Or as someone once said, it’s easy to sit up and take notice but it’s more difficult to get up and take action.

The Fayette School Board is perfect example of this. For all the flack they take on the street and in the blogs their meetings are practically devoid of public participation.

More than anything, it is “We the People” who are ultimately accountable for holding elected citizens in check. To do any less is to spit in the face of the very form of government that we all say we hold so dear.

It has often been said that “you can’t fight city hall.” This is not only a naive belief, it is also a dangerous one because it perpetuates the myth that citizen participation is ineffective, and it promotes a mindset of increasing complacency that guarantees that accountability will always be a concept, not a reality.

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Tug13's picture
Submitted by Tug13 on Thu, 10/01/2009 - 12:22pm.

You hit the nail on the head again Ben. I've been there as a witness to the disrespect, bored looks, and rolling eyes from the Fayetteville Mayor & Council.
We CAN fight City Hall. Citizens of Fayetteville get out and vote these people OUT! Larry Dell & Walt White are up for re-election, start there. They have been on the council too long!

Vote for Mickey Edwards & Ms. Hawkins.


We need new people who will listen to the citizens of Fayetteville with respect.

Tug Smiling

mapleleaf's picture
Submitted by mapleleaf on Wed, 09/23/2009 - 6:57am.

Do you need proof that public officials want to be worshipped?

Look at how mayors and judges love to be called “Your Honor.” Of course, most of them are too dumb to realize that someone who calls them Your Honor does so because he does not even remember their name. But then again most of them order themselves big nameplates they put in front of them facing the public as soon as they get elected. And they order plenty of stationery at public expense with their own name printed on it. Still, people call them Your Honor.

Some people know how to play to their vanity, especially attorneys. To many lawyers, anybody who’s been elected to any kind of office rates being called “Honorable.” And attorneys will generally end any letter they send them with “Respectfully.”

Just recently I heard a judge admonish lawyers not to tell the court, “With all due respect, Your Honor,” because as a smart woman the message she got was, “I know you’re a dummy, Judge, but…” We need more of that kind of judge, and fewer sycophants.

So I join Ben Nelms in saying (with all due respect) to all the elected officials out there who like to talk about “my” city, “my” court, etc., that their having been elected might have been a fluke more than a display of public wisdom, and that they don’t really own anything. Judges included.

dawn69's picture
Submitted by dawn69 on Thu, 09/24/2009 - 12:05am.

With all due respect, Mapleleaf, sometimes words mean exactly what they are intended to mean. My mother and I differ in our political leanings and always, when we find ourselves discussing politics, I use the words "with all due respect". Now, when I use those words I am saying, "While I respect your opinion and your right to that opinion, I would like to offer a rebuttal and explain my position on this issue.". These words are most often used to set a civil tone for disagreement. There have been a few times (during the Bush/Kerry election) that my mother "respectfully" asked me to leave her house after a political debate. At that time, I smiled and said "I love you, mom, even if you think I'm wrong and I disagree with that.". Smiling


Shannon Dawn

mapleleaf's picture
Submitted by mapleleaf on Thu, 09/24/2009 - 5:43am.

Bless your heart!

suggarfoot's picture
Submitted by suggarfoot on Wed, 09/23/2009 - 6:06am.

You are so right on target. If elected officials are in open contempt of the citizens, it is obvious, that is not who they are serving, nor wish to please.

It is the people's government. But their apathy has badly eroded their power.

A few years back, Tyrone had gotten out of hand. And "we the people" did something about it. It was a grass roots effort and it worked.

It scares me how there are no more rebels out there.

"It has often been said that “you can’t fight city hall.” This is not only a naive belief, it is also a dangerous one because it perpetuates the myth that citizen participation is ineffective, and it promotes a mindset of increasing complacency that guarantees that accountability will always be a concept, not a reality."

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