as published in the Blytheville Courier News on Saturday, March 19, 2016
By TOM HENRY
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!”
I realize that Franklin’s quote was in the context of the necessity of guaranteeing citizens the right to bear arms; however his quote shouldn’t be limited to just that. A lamb can also be “well-armed” by using the weapons known as the right to vote and the freedom of speech (especially when in tandem with the freedom of the press). Often Mr. John Q. Public feels like he is a powerless lamb, getting fleeced by too far more powerful wolves on any number of issues.
To complete the analogy, in Blytheville, there are two very fierce camps regarding Thunder Bayou. One side (wolf #1) is wanting to repurpose the golf course, transforming it into a park offering a variety of recreational possibilities to a larger and more diverse group of people. The other side (wolf #2) is an extremely vocal and passionate group of people desiring the status quo. Most Blytheville citizens (the lambs) truthfully “don’t have a dog in that fight,” but they are footing the bill through their tax dollars.
For years, and even more so the last six months, the two wolves have been circling, growling and attempting to prove their dominance. It still remains to be seen which of the two wolves will become the alpha wolf; but make no mistake about it, only one will prevail. Why? Because despite calls for compromise, both concepts really can’t coexist. Both wolves have been heard time and time again, over and over ad nauseum. So much so in fact, that they have not brought anything new to the debate in months. It is just choreographed drama…a test of endurance…with neither side being able to win the debate demonstrably enough to gain an upper hand.
Finally, Thursday evening, some of the lambs had a chance to be heard. While most of the speakers were wolves, it was extremely gratifying to witness multiple regular, average taxpayers with no personal stake in the matter weighing in. We need more that, not just in this issue but in all issues. Unity and consensus is needed in Blytheville more than anything. We’ve been divided for so long…we even memorialized one of our main thoroughfares as Division Street. Consensus does not mean unanimity. Consensus comes when decisions rise up from the grassroots and not in “smoke filled backrooms.” It comes when people don’t feel violated, used, cheated, robbed (fleeced), lied to or left out of the process.
I commend the federal and state government officials for forcing the City of Blytheville to hold the public forum. I commend the 175-plus citizens that came out to participate. I commend the organizer’s efforts to allow both sides of the issue to be heard.
The public forum went far better than I had anticipated, but since a true townhall is not a common occurrence we experienced growing pains overcoming the learning curve. But I call for more public forums in the future, real public forums and much sooner in the process. Tempers would not have risen to such a crescendo if they had been held earlier. Far too many people simply felt their voices are not being heard and became increasingly cynical because they didn’t have an avenue to vent frustrations, air difference and offer suggestions.
Before anyone argues that Blytheville citizens have an opportunity to do so at every City Council meeting, the quarterly meetings and/or at the committee meetings, I would say that you are only partially correct. At the full City Council meetings, the public is only allowed to speak on agenda items. The average person doesn’t know what those will be until they arrive. Even I, as a member of the press, rarely know more than a day in advance. Additionally, at the committee meetings, it is handled so poorly by the committee chairmen that very little good comes out. There needs to be a standard, organized way of receiving public comments at every committee meeting. Let everyone speak ONLY at the proper time of the meeting and order must be maintained. Additionally, Springeresque speakers must never be allowed to hijack the meetings. Committee chairmen are obligated to maintain order. Thursday night was an example of how much better things run when these principles are applied.
Limiting each speaker to a designated amount of time also proved to be effective when enforced consistently. Direct engagement between speakers needs to be limited as much as possible to keep passions manageable and to stay on topic. Alternating as much as possible between “pro” and “con” is only fair as well. For the most part, those things were done Thursday evening and for that I was impressed. Well done Blytheville!