Monday, December 10, 2012

When Numbers Are Used to Distort the Truth

By Terry E. Cohen, Council President

Early in its article last Sunday (December 2), the Daily Times repeated an assertion by the Mayor that “21 major policy proposals” were being blocked by a majority of the Council. The newspaper offers its readers little to no information about whether that assertion is correct or what that “21” means. The article references a few of the issues, but again with little to no meaningful discussion about what the differences of opinions are or whether all of the proposals should move forward. (Some of the issues referenced by the paper will be addressed later on this site.)

A meaningful discussion for the public would have entailed putting the “21” in context, asking questions such as:

• What is the full list of “21”?
• Does it include issues like the aggressive dog ordinance (as mentioned in the article), which were not delayed by Council, but instead were delayed six times at the request of the City Administrator?
• Of the hundreds of items Administration has advanced to Council (most of which Council has advanced for a vote), could any have been sent to a back burner so Council and City Attorney time could have been devoted to issues on the list of “21”? For example, the Mayor and Administration advanced an ordinance to regulate portable storage devices (e.g., brand names “Cubes” and “PODS”). Upon discussion, the Council and the City Attorney learned this had only had 3 or 4 complaints in recent years.
• Should the numerous issues on which the Council supported the Mayor (e.g., Wicomico River environmental improvements, Tenants’ Rights Addendum) or got to “yes” (e.g., Onley-Bateman intersection, River’s Edge project, firefighters SAFER grant) have taken a back seat to the issues on this list of “21”?
• Are some of the issues really “stalled” or “blocked,” or are they actually multi-step processes?
• Are some of the “21” issues those with highly complex implications that require extensive legal research to avoid costly court battles for the City?
• Is the time frame expected for turnaround by Council realistic given the workload of competing priorities? For example, issues like the state-mandated Ethics Ordinance or the Wastewater Treatment Plant could not be set aside.

These questions come back to a discussion of priorities, or as one legislative advisory service said, “Organizations cannot do everything at once.” In November, I extended an invitation to the Mayor to join the Council in December for a discussion of priorities for the remainder of the fiscal year (i.e., through June 30), but he declined.

Taking stock mid-year of where we are and where we want to be is a good way to ensure our time, resources and taxpayer money are devoted to the highest priorities. Let’s not waste City Attorney time and money, staff resources or Council deliberation time again on a portable storage ordinance when we have matters of greater importance to consider.

By simply tossing the “21” out there, the Daily Times gave the impression that all “21” are worthy of moving forward, which may not be the case. Does the list contain initiatives the Mayor is advancing that could undermine years of building a “growth pays for growth” discipline into our policies, inviting a return to a form of developer reimbursements that have not served the taxpayers well?

As you can see, context is vital when tossing numbers around. The Daily Times can claim journalistic innocence by saying it was merely quoting the Mayor. However, it built a so-called “news” story around such claims. This was not a time-sensitive topic. The newspaper could have delivered a well-balanced piece by waiting the few days for when I offered to meet and discuss it.

That might have resulted in real questions and answers the public would have found meaningful, which the Daily Times does not appear to find as juicy a story to tell. That’s truly unfortunate because the real story is newsworthy and, when the public is fully informed, people participate at a level that is really beneficial to producing good government.