Elected/appointed officials are, believe it or not, people. Yes! They really are. They are just like you and me and everyone else hanging out breathing air, eating, etc.
However, given their responsibilities to “serve the public”, communication become the key issue. Remember playing that game when you were a child where you take a group of people and one person starts by whispering something in someone’s ear and then that person passes it to the next person, and so forth until the final person tells everyone what the “original statement” was? It use to be funny because of the strange distortions that would occur.
It is not so funny when it happens in situations where elected/appointed officials are expected to make decisions and deal with citizen concerns. In fact, it can create a tremendous “bone of contention” creating a lot of animosity, lack of trust, or loss of elections. Communication is THE KEY to good government. EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION is the “GOLDEN KEY to good government”.
So let’s begin by looking at effective communication by using one example. Today’s Roanoke Times had an article about Christiansburg’s new Town Manager. “Headed in the right Direction by Sarah Cox. Oh? We just got a new one, I didn’t know that they needed another Town Manger. It appears that Randy Wingfield, former Planning Director has replaced Barry Helms as Christiansburg’s new Town Manager. Somehow, I think this will be as much of a surprise to Mr. Helms as it has been to the number of people who set my phone ringing bright and early this morning.
This article does not seem to have made it to the online version or I would send you the link. It can be found in the print version within the section for “Real Estate” in the 4/29/12 Sunday edition of the Roanoke Times.
The subtitle of the article is “new town manager offers positive outlook for Christiansburg”. It goes on to discuss how Mr. Wingfield, as Director of Planning has been instrumental in bringing Christiansburg to what it is today. Specifically he was instrumental in Christiansburg’s expansion. He feels that “the town’s priorities are in order, including parks and recreation, trails and sidewalks and downtown streetscaping.”
Bringing 14 years of experience to the position is nice, and the article is written such that it appears Mr. Wingfield was instrumental in initiating many of the recent changes that have evolved in the Town. Well, that’s a nice thought, but no evidence exists to support that interpretation. In fact, just the opposite is true.
I cannot help but wonder why it has taken 14 years of such guidance to suddenly begin to see some changes in the last couple of years. During the course of that 14 years there were numerous discussion by Town Council concerning parks (not sports parks), trails, bikeway, walkways, sidewalks, beautification, and a myriad of other subjects. All of those pretty much died at the talking stage. Fortunately, there were a few things that kept being pushed by certain Council Members and we now have an effective website, we have sidewalks being built that actually connect people with destinations, we have trails being expanded, but, it took the force of council to get them going and it was a long uphill battle. Of course, there was a change in the make up of Town Council and in the Town’s Administration in the last couple of years, so that is one possible reason why these changes center over the last couple of years. Perhaps Mr. Wingfield had all of these goals in mind but was blocked?
Did I mention by the way, that 4 years later I am still waiting for documents for which I submitted a FOIA request? One of the first things that spurred me on in looking at open government was the fact that years of Planning Commission Meeting Minutes were missing from the public eye. There were some notes on meetings, years old, that were handwritten and so illegible as to be useless without Mr. Wingfield being present to translate.
As to priorities concerning parks, I have received so many phone calls and emails over these last few years wanting to know why Christiansburg couldn’t have one decent park that did not involved sports. This quote in the article pretty much sums up his perspective: “Christiansburg’s Aquatic Center which opened in July of 2010, and the Rec Center, which opened in 1997, exemplify recognition of enhancing “the health, fitness, recreational, and competitive needs throughout our region.”
This is where the “communication” thingie comes into play. Backing up to the Aquatic Center, many people understood Aquatic Center to mean a swimming pool. Citizens were pretty darned upset when they saw what they were getting and how it did not match their expectations. Citizens have asked for public parks over and over again, and received sports fields. The core of the matter comes down to how you define the terms. For instance, for some a park means a place to go play ball. (Where I grew up we called those ball fields.) For others, a park means a reasonably undamaged natural environment where people have a chance to go and enjoy bits of nature, picnic, and relax. (Again, in my youth, these meant large natural areas where you could picnic, walk, toss a ball around, etc. but in an unstructured environment.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary online recreation is: “refreshment of strength and spirits after work; also : a means of refreshment or diversion”, and in that sites Learner’s Dictionary: “something people do to relax or have fun : activities done for enjoyment”. Quite simply, ball fields are not all people’s choices for how to accomplish this.
So you get a bunch of different people talking about recreation or parks for recreation and you can see that based upon the individual’s perspective on what IS relaxing, there is a wide range of things that could be considered parks. Historically, Christiansburg has focused on sports facilities rather than other forms of recreation. If you want to play ball or swim, this is where to do it. If you want to be able to take our your camera and photograph wildflowers, birds, and other features of nature, you’re gonna have to leave town for that. If you want to swing a bat at a ball, kick a ball at a goal, or swim laps in a pool, you’re in luck. If you want to take a leisurely stroll in a natural environment that has a place where you can stop and have a picnic, then get in your car and go somewhere.
There have been recent discussion by Town Council concerning a park that would be in a more natural environment and would not include sports. For those people who just need some quiet time or a place to enjoy nature, this could be wonderful. Having areas where families could go on picnics, where groups of parents with small children could meet and let the children play in a safe environment as a group, would provide a wonderful asset to the community.
For now, I guess it will be a matter of “Let’s wait and see” to determine if we are “headed in the right direction” and to see if the right “critter” is in the harness to pull the load needed to get that job done. We will just have to see how Mr. Wingfield’s skills and expertise will be put to use. It will be interesting to see if “progression” or “regression” will become the keyword. Keep your eyes and ears open.
Above all, let your voice be heard. You can contact your Town Council members about your concerns, wants, and wishes. Just make sure that you clearly state what it is that you want. Take the time to get someone else to look at what you’ve written, see if it means the same thing to them that it does to you. Be as specific as possible. If you specifically want parks with native plants such as wild flowers, then tell them that. Don’t expect them to know what your definition of a park is. If you want sidewalks, tell them specifically where and why you want those sidewalks, or for the other side of the coin, specifically where you do not want sidewalks and why.
Don’t expected elected and appointed officials to be mind readers make it clear.