A clear message

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 73 views 

Riff Raff, by Michael Tilley
[email protected]

It’s been a struggle to come up with a more precise or acceptable or enlightened descriptor than what first appeared in my farm-boy brain when learning of the decision by the Fort Smith Board of Directors to suspend televised board meetings and cut back on other forms of citizen communication.

The Board of Dissectors, hiding behind the convenient excuse of needing budget cuts to find money in the city’s general fund budget to operate the Fort Smith Convention Center, reduced the communications budget by $28,800 and “saved” $7,400 by doing away with televised board meetings. The overall budget cutting plan is expected to gain approval from the Board of Discarders during their Tuesday (Dec. 6) meeting.

“Dumb,” was the first descriptor of the communication cuts. Other words have auditioned. Short-sighted. Ridiculous. Sad. Silly. Unfortunate. Disappointing. Several expletives also auditioned.

First impressions are often the best. “Dumb” remains the descriptor. The decision to go with “dumb” was reinforced when learning that the origin of the word comes from a long-ago German pronunciation of “mute.”

And mute is what we shall receive more of from the Board of Divestors.

Let’s be clear: The members of this board couldn’t wait to cut the televised broadcasts of the twice-monthly voting board meetings. During the previous few years, the peasants in the community began to use the televised meetings to make a scene, gathering with their verbal pitchforks and burning bridges with their fiery misinformation. Unable to exhibit the leadership required to restore order, the Board of Digressors allowed an expanded method of outreach to fall victim to a handful of motivated malcontents. I’d like to say the issue is more complicated, but it ain’t.

Out of the about $42 million general fund budget, money for the televised board meetings amounts to .017% — not even two-tenths of a half percent.

During the past decade, the public relations effort by the Board of Disablers and the city staff has been a textbook case in how to not handle public relations. There is the 1% prepared food tax. Or the Van Buren water thing. What’s the most recent number of dead-ends we’ve taken on our quality-of-place adventures? Anyone ever get a straight answer as to why former City Administrator Dennis Kelly was suddenly fired? There’s a steak dinner for anyone (other than city staff) who ever obtained an understandable answer from the city attorney on the first try. We could go on and on, but you have a Cotton Bowl trip to plan.

There was some hope in recent years that a new board might engage a professional, results-oriented public relations effort. At board retreats, there was serious, sometimes meaningful discussions by the Board of Disaggregators to do something about the city’s poor interaction with citizens. Hope rose when the city was an important part of the teams that rescued the 188th Fighter Wing in 2005, and captured the U.S. Marshals Museum in 2007. However, nothing was built upon those hopeful foundations.

Sure, the city has an employee with media and public relations experience. But that person has been given little to no support. This is like Von Braun in 1969 telling Neil Armstrong that the NASA budget has been cut and he’ll have to figure out a way to get himself to the moon.

City Director and Vice Mayor Kevin Settle is non-plussed about the communication cuts. He says social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), neighborhood coalition meetings and ward meetings have created more citizen contact and involvement in recent years.

That’s all good and swell and warm and fuzzy, but the city’s business isn’t officially conducted on Facebook or at ward meetings.

Settle also says cutting televised meetings is not a big deal because the broadcast is available only to Cox Communication customers.

Really? It’s not worth it unless it’s an all-or-nothing deal? That’s like telling a starving person you’d rather not give him just a half sandwich because that probably wouldn’t fill him up.

This Board of Deflectors has spent much time talking about the importance of better communication with citizens. That talk has not included innovative methods. The talk has not included any push to learn about and adopt best practices. And, to be sure, there has been no talk about the need to invest MORE in public relations. When it comes to improving public relations, the Board of Diminishers literally cuts and runs.

In deciding to reduce communications funding, the Board of Diminutives spoke clearly in terms of the value they place on all their talk about a more open government.

Short-sighted. Ridiculous. Sad. Silly. Unfortunate. Disappointing.