Fairview’s Citizen’s Response Group: One Year Later
Famed sociologist Margaret Mead once wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has”.
While Mead had citizens like George Washington, Susan B. Anthony and Jonas Salk in mind, the same axiom pertains to the 57 dedicated citizens of Fairview who agreed to serve on the town’s first Citizens’ Resource Group (CRG) almost exactly a year ago.
The group, appointed by the Fairview Town Council in January 2018, was put in place to help the Council understand why its bond election went down to such a decisive defeat in November 2017 and to also provide the Council with input for future planning. The ill-fated bond election was opposed by 70 percent of voters and turned-out 25 percent of registered voters, almost four times the typical turn-out of six percent for off-year elections. The key element of the failed bond election was the construction of a new Fire Station No. 1 to replace the dilapidated relic that at one time was Fairview’s original Town Hall. The proposed fire station was the largest part of a package that included several other town facilities and would have cost a total of $25 million.
CRG members were asked if the scope of the bond election defeat was the result of an orchestrated campaign to defeat the bond proposal. The CRG members interviewed said “absolutely not”. The bond was defeated simply because so many residents objected to its high cost and the impact the proposal would have had on property tax rates had it been approved.
Nine members of the CRG volunteered to be interviewed to assess and review CRG’s first year of activity. In attendance were: Gary Davies, John Harkins, Hal Bryan, Lori Lauter, Mike VanNatta, Greg Smith, Jonathan Cocks, Sandy Ahlin and Gary Carter.
“Has the CRG been effective in executing its mission?” “It was definitely a learning curve”, offered Sandy Ahlin. Greg Smith agreed, adding, “It is working despite some obstacles. A leader of the CRG should have been appointed from the start. The group is too large not to have a Chairperson. Members of the CRG have, for the most part, been engaged and open. The Council has appeared interested in listening to what we have offered. Is it perfect? Of course, not.” John Harkins added that, “Timing has been problematic and there has been something of a drop-off in the number of CRG members who remain actively involved. But this is to be expected. There has been a lot of frustration along the way.
John Cocks, summed things up by observing, “The CRG has been effective but along the way things bogged down. The Council and staff have been forthcoming with lots of information but many of the members of the CRG felt overwhelmed by the nature and amount of data and the absence of someone who could explain to us what all the details mean. Take the very voluminous town budget. It runs pages and pages long. Without someone who understands all of its aspects present to explain that to us, anyone lacking deep financial knowledge would likely feel lost amidst it all.”
Gary Carter agrees that, “Too much detail was shared with us without any explanation about what it all means. The CRG Manual is a good example of too much data. It is enormous and contains hundreds of pages of detailed financial and engineering data. Most lay persons would not begin to understand a lengthy and very detailed retail lease, for example, but that kind of data was included, again, without any explanation or guidance. If someone was to miss, say two CRG meetings, they would have been hopelessly lost.
Perhaps most troubling though is that most of the CRG members expressed frustration because, while they want to serve as effective advocates for responsible town planning, they don’t feel adequately prepared to do so. At least, not yet. Several commented about their concerns that the CRG has not met since early July and now has been invited to participate in hours and hours of discussion with the Town Council during three meetings squeezed into three consecutive weeks in January. Several described the Town Council as “now hell bent to get the next bond election scheduled as soon as possible” despite the advice of the Council’s own expert consultant Ron Cox whose nine-page letter of March 18, 2018 cautioned the Council and CRG to, “Be patient with the process and with its timing. Allow time for the process. Do not rush to the next election date but be certain there is understanding and willingness to move forward when the timing is right.”
The CRG members we interviewed say they do not think the timing is right yet because there are still too many critical details to address. They say that much more detailed work needs to be done before setting a bond measure election. Many fear such a rushed bond proposal would again face defeat by skeptical voters. One CRG member even speculated that if the CRG itself were asked to approve moving the bond proposal forward now it wouldn’t gain the approval to do so. Too many CRG members feel there is just too much more to do before again asking voters to support a multi-million dollar bond measure.
Cocks said, “Much of our stress and anxiety is the result of poor communication between the Council and the CRG.” For this reason, John Harkins, suggested that, “It was a mistake not to appoint leaders of the CRG at the start”. “Too often we just drifted from one rabbit trail to another without making any real progress”, says Greg Smith.
Despite the frustrations and set-backs, most CRG members believe the group should be continued and enhanced in order to address Fairview’s additional capital planning needs. All seemed to agree that the pace of change within Fairview has accelerated so rapidly that it has overtaken both residents and the Town Council. “The CRG must evolve along with the town of Fairview. But I’m not sure exactly how that happens”, says Cocks. One CRG member cited as an illustration of the town’s ill-prepared growth that several new parks have been created but most don’t have any parking facilities yet.
Mike VanNatta closed the discussion by observing, “Fairview needs leadership now more than ever. The Town Council must finally get over the shock of the November 2017 bond defeat. We need leadership to move the town through some difficult decision making now and into the future. The Town Council is the logical place where that leadership must reside.”