A news article and press release caught my attention recently. Both addressed the issue of how Chapel Hill officials communicate with the public. The press release announced Chapel Hill’s receiving two national awards for innovative communications. The other was an interview with Town Council member Maria Palmer on Ephesus-Fordham.
Ms. Palmer was quoted saying “I need to do a better job of telling the public how much they don’t know,” implying that the public should sit back and let her make the decisions from her position on the dais. In her hands, so she believes, the town will run smoothly well into the future. “I would rather be right than to serve another term, so I’m going to continue to vote for what I think is going to be the right thing to do for 10 years down the road.”
While I wish certain state and national elected officials would take the position that doing the right thing for one term is better than selling one’s ethics for the sake of a second term, I don’t share Ms. Palmer’s trust in her judgment and grasp of local circumstances. But for the sake of argument, let’s say she’s right and the public really doesn’t know enough to question her decisions.
Government transparency means the public should have access to the same information as elected officials have before decisions are made. From transparency comes trust or at least a position where both sides can agree to disagree. At the very least, having the same information ensures the possibility that a dialectical conversation can arise which sounds like the basis of the town’s communication strategy referenced in the press release, “We reach out to people where they are to tell the story of what we are doing and how our actions affect them.”
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A review of the council email archives and meeting videos, as well as the citizen petitions submitted, shows council members were very clear on how much opposition there was to rezoning Ephesus Fordham, and they knew the basis for that opposition. If Ms. Palmer felt the public was so uninformed, why didn’t she demand more of an outreach effort before the issue created such a rift in the community? The communication strategy doesn’t say, “We reach out to people and tell them what we think they should know.” It says we tell them what we are doing and why in language that is accessible to them.
When asked about the most important element of a good story, Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney, said: “The most important element of a great story is the audience. A great story told in a desert on a recording with no one hearing is kind of meaningless.” Understanding one’s audience is the basis of good leadership in my opinion. By contrast, Ms. Palmer reported that it’s the council’s job to “ be ahead of our community if we think it’s the right thing to do.”
By disregarding the views and expertise of local residents, Ms. Palmer has set herself above those she is intended to serve. Unlike Michael Eisner, she has ignored her primary audience and awarded privilege to the monied interests of developers and chamber members.
I like the town’s communication strategy and wish them all the best in the continuous improvement of disseminating the town’s stories. I just hope Ms. Palmer will step back and remember that there is no “right” position in how the town grows into the future. But there is a collaborative position where the stories are locally grounded and where elected officials, town staff, and local residents listen to and respect one another, producing a dialogue that yields results everyone can be proud of.