Ignoring the will of the people

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On Monday night, three out of five members of the Cassville City Council chose to act with complete disregard for the wishes and needs of the citizens they were elected to serve. Aldermen Darrell Ledenham and Jeff Parsons voted in favor of the water rate increase adopted several weeks ago prior to the public hearing, and aldermen Bill Hill and Terry Heinz voted against it. Mayor Tracy Holle broke the tie with a "yes" vote. As a result, water rates will more than double for many city residents, adding a tremendous burden to those already stretched to the limits by the recession. Such a large increase will affect discretionary income, so citizens will have less money to spend at local businesses, striking a further blow to the local economy.

In breaking the tie, Mayor Holle quoted Eleanor Roosevelt saying "confidence comes not from always being right but from not fearing to be wrong." It is my opinion that the mayor is wrong in this instance. She was elected to do the will of the people not to further her own agenda or vision for the city. The mayor's ideals for the city are commendable but it takes time, planning and the support of the citizens and business community to achieve such lofty goals. Imposing a large water rate hike on citizens at a precarious economic time is ill advised and threatens the economic vitality of this city. The city's own economic development director warned the council that approving a large hike in water and sewer rates could negatively impact Cassville's efforts to attract new businesses and jobs, not to mention the negative effect it will have on existing businesses who are already struggling to make ends meet. As a result of Monday night's action, the City of Cassville can now lay claim to having some of the highest water rates in southwest Missouri. How will that data look on material sent out to potential businesses and industries looking to relocate?

Over 150 citizens took precious time out of their busy lives to attend a public hearing last Thursday night and make their voices heard. Those who spoke were not unreasonable. For the most part, they were respectful and sometimes impassioned in their pleas that the city listen to them. The majority of those who spoke were not against a water rate increase but rather favored a phased-in approach that would allow them some breathing room to adjust tight household budgets. Included among those seeking a compromise through an increase imposed over time was the well respected Cassville Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). Citizens also asked for more detailed information to support the need for a rate increase. Again, not an unreasonable request. After all, taxpayers have the fundamental right to know how every penny of the money they hand over to the city is spent.

It was clear at the public hearing, and even more so at Monday night's council meeting, that two council members and the mayor had already made up their minds about the rate increase. As a result, citizens and concerned business owners now feel as if their input was ignored and trivialized. A city should function as a democracy, and the way this rate increase was introduced and acted upon made a mockery of the process of soliciting citizen feedback before making a decision that will impact every Cassville citizen. With no disrepect to those who served on the infrastructure task force committee, a recommendation made by a handful of people should not trump the will of the citizens as a whole, especially when city residents turn out in record numbers for a public hearing and are united in their response to a proposal that will negatively affect their wellbeing and livelihoods.

The action taken by the city could prove to be very short-sighted. By moving ahead with their big plans and ignoring the citizens' outcry, city officials have used up precious political capital. Where will support come from when the city needs to pass a major bond issue or needs to foster community investment in a very important downtown revitalization effort?

In closing, we want to thank the citizens of Cassville for speaking up, voicing their opinion and attending the public hearing. Over the past 20 years of covering city meetings, we have witnessed only one other meeting where the crowd was as large. In that case, the council and mayor listened to the people and changed their well-intentioned plans to reflect the will of the citizens who turned out in force to make their opinions known. And thank you to Bill Hill and Terry Heinz for listening to your constitutents and attempting to forge a compromise. You truly modeled the qualities and characteristics we look for in our elected officials -- humility, an open mind and the desire to honestly represent the citizens you serve.

Freedom of speech in all forms is one of the premises our democracy was founded upon, and sometimes the best way to make your voices heard is at the ballot box.

Lisa Schlichtman