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.