EDC Board Appointments: Ready for Battle!

For more of my commentary on life in Richmond, Indiana check out RichmondMatters.com.
(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

If you read today's Palladium-Item article detailing the recent attempts by Richmond's City Council to gain more representation on the Economic Development Corporation's board of directors, you might be a little confused. I certainly was.

On one hand, you've got the City painting a picture of being left out of the key parts of the relationship the EDC has with its Richmond constituents, having to fork over $730,000 without appropriate representation.

You've got a County official noting that the City is as well represented on the EDC board as the County or other entities, and that things are working just fine as they are, while the Chamber president notes that there may be a conversation to be had, but that the current actions being taken are too poorly timed.

What's going on here?  Everyone seems to be making reasonable statements on the matter that represents the point of view of the entities they serve, but it sounds like they're having the conversation with each other for the first time on the pages of the newspaper. ARGH!

If indeed the "conversation" was triggered by a City Council resolution refusing to designate its usual fund contribution to the EDC budget, then that seems like a really poor way to start things off. It sets up a battle full of pressure points and high-stakes leveraging, and needlessly sensationalizes the issue. Councilman Phil Quinn noted that they're trying to "send a statement" - why do that with a public vote, when you could do it in a meeting, e-mail message or even postal mail? I suspect we'd be a lot farther along if there'd been in-person meetings between City, County, and Chamber officials trying to hash this out before going public with it, and while I don't know firsthand that there wasn't one, I suspect that they skipped that part.

By the same token, County and Chamber officials should not have responded in kind for a news story, using the media for power plays. When you say things like "it doesn't make any sense to me," or "this is extremely untimely" for the press, it's a kind of public disapproval and shaming, even paternalistic finger-wagging, that can only serve to inflame whatever tensions might already exist. It also makes us look like we're a community in chaos, which is exactly what economic development efforts don't need. Instead, officials should have either refrained from commenting in any detail while noting that conversations are ongoing, or at least framed their concerns more positively - "We're concerned about the timing and the reasoning here, but we're ready to work with each other to understand everyone's needs and broker a solution that works best for our citizens." Would that have been so hard?

Yes, I'm basing all of this unsolicited advice on a single Pal-Item news story, and there may be other pieces of the puzzle not yet reported, but I think the theme here is not a new one for our community.

I've discussed the kinds of power struggles that are already built into the structure of our community building organizations, and when you throw in poor (or total lack of) communication on top of that, things are only going to get worse. I think it's fine for community leaders to act shrewdly in the fulfillment of their vision for a better Richmond and Wayne County, but this cannot involve closing the door to dialog with other stakeholders - early and often.  Too frequently, we hear about one organization or government entity "scratching its head" at the actions of another, and then we throw up our hands and wonder why there's little public confidence in our prospects for economic revitalization. Let's connect some dots here, folks.

Mayor Sally Hutton is quoted as saying that "The bottom line is we want to work together...We will work something out." Let's hope that, for everyone involved, there's not only an intention to work together but some actual mechanisms by which that might happen. These community leaders need to get in a room together TODAY, and they shouldn't leave until they've got a joint media statement prepared that lays out a much more positive path forward. Richmond and Wayne County deserve at least that level of collaboration.

Update on 1/6/09: in an article today, the Pal-Item notes that the City Council has approved their contribution to the EDC's budget, contingent upon a future appointment to the board.  This comes in the form of a 1-year agreement instead of the usual 4-year term.  According to the article, "No time frame was set for the first meeting between representatives of the city and county."  This also comes on the same day as an announcement about the new EDC President.

5 thoughts on “EDC Board Appointments: Ready for Battle!

  1. Love your blog. Missing from this whole discussion is the historical perspective of how and why we ended up with an EDC in the first place.

    Back in the 90s, local boosters sold the idea that our county needed a (regressive) tax to pay for what had essentially been a chamber of commerce function. The principle argument before the county council, the body that authorized the new tax, was that the state's commerce department would not put much effort into a county that didn't invest in their own economic development by enacting the EDIT. At the time, East Central Indiana was famously snubbed by Indianapolis-based economic interests, as was the rest of the state, though to a somewhat lesser degree. Wayne County's own EDIT and a private club to spend the dough was established with these goals publicly stated in the sales pitch.

    Objections were also voiced, not the least of which had to do with the unaccountable makeup of the EDC proposed board. Also included with these concerns was the narrow representation of those whose taxes would support the EDC.

    There was to be no representation by the education community, surely a key factor in attracting sustainable business.

    Organized labor, whose membership would essentially be supporting a de-facto chamber of commerce, an avowed enemy to public education an unions.

    All of these concerns were explained away with the lamest of excuses and none of the county officials bothered to require any more accountability for these concerns than they did for the spending of the tax dollars.

    Today, none of the claims that justified the EDIT or explained away legitimate worries over the lack of accountability of the EDC have been fulfilled. What was accomplished was the public funding of what had been a chamber of commerce function, and that is essentially the the issue that must finally be addressed by the whole community, not just Richmond and the county Republicans who imposed this flawed system.

  2. Thanks, Mark, I really appreciate your comments. I'm sure you're right that there are some broader conversations to be had about the utility and funding of the EDC. I didn't have the time or enough antacid tablets to take that on for this post, and would hate for comments here to turn too much into a referendum on the EDC's model itself.

    My main point - regardless of the differing viewpoints about the EDC - is that the conversation should be conducted directly and respectfully amongst interested parties, not through Bill Engle at the Pal-Item.

  3. Chris, I'd beg to differ.

    For years, various government councils have decried the public discussion, through newspapers, blogs or radio, of public policy, which is exactly what's going on now in the Pal-Item and I hope elsewhere.
    One primary reason this "problem" came to a head yesterday was the lack of a robust public discourse, in my opinion.

    Playing into the hands of those elected officials, many of whom are believed to have played a role in the sacking of one former Pal-Item managing editor due to his crusading journalism that exposed EDC corruption, is hardly a position for a fan of the 1st Amendment to be staking.

    Noticeably absent from the Pal-Item article was the vote's roll call, hardly an omission you'd expect from a veteran writer, but one that might well reflect the pressure of local boosters to limit the amount of facts relevant to the story.

  4. Mark,

    I can agree wholeheartedly that there should be no fear in having the business of these entities detailed and discussed in the press, blogs and other new media. I'm not asking anyone to keep it quiet - quite the opposite. And yes, it can be scary and wrong when major decisions are made in backroom conversations that side-step public input.

    What I'm trying to avoid is the phenomenon where "Bob tells Alice to tell Sven that Bob is upset with Sven." This gives Alice too much power, and harms productive dialog between Bob and Sven. There are better ways for humans to communicate, especially when it comes to difficult or tense issues.

    I hope I'm identifying a useful distinction here, but I'm sure you'll tell me if I'm not. 🙂 Thanks, anyway, for the continued engagement.

  5. In any case, thanks for manning this forum. I know that, at times, it can be a thankless task, but I think these independent blogs are valuable on many levels.

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