TIMES TRIBUNE (CORBIN, Ky.)
Perception is reality.
Those three little words are a “credo,” for lack of a better word, that I have come to understand from many different points of view.
And the long-learned lesson began when I was about 13 years old — that was when my parents entered a restaurant while we were on vacation, sat in a booth, then decided to leave. No one came to bring menus, no one came with glasses of water, and the restaurant looked like a Super Bowl party had gone down in there.
My parents were pretty angry.
I was mortified — embarrassed — and couldn’t believe we did that.
But I also couldn’t believe how nasty the place looked.
Once I began working in the restaurant business, I started to better understand that little three-word credo.
Let me explain.
There are two basic points of view when it comes to people at a restaurant — the customers and the employees.
Let’s say you head out to one of the popular chain restaurants for a nice meal and a drink or two.
You walk into the restaurant, and many of the tables are littered with used dishware and half-eaten meals.
Napkins, crumbs and bits of assorted trash dot the carpeted floors.
Many of the servers look disheveled, and you’re not spoken to immediately.
You see all this and wonder if good service and a better meal might be more readily available elsewhere.
That’s a customer’s view.
What that customer doesn’t know is that two busloads of college football players and cheerleaders just left the restaurant. The team won the game, and patrons were over-exuberant in their celebration.
It’s a whole different reality — but it makes both reactions to the same situation completely legitimate.
And it should make you think.
My little “perception is reality” credo easily extends beyond the confines of a restaurant.
Such is the case of the Barbourville City Council.
Many stories have been published within this newspaper concerning that city council and its members.
Some of those stories were what we call “good news” pieces.
But many more showed evidence of conflict, anger, resentment, and hostility — and much of it appears to come from the newly-elected council members.
Meetings have taken place where the tension in the room is a living, breathing demon.
This got noticeably worse after a special state audit was launched on the city’s coffers — which will cost the city several thousand dollars.
A story about that issue appeared in the July 19 edition of The Times-Tribune — with some commentary from Mayor David Thompson wondering who requested the audit and why.
Then, on July 23, the newsroom received a phone message from Council member Darren West which accused me of being one-sided when it came to my reporting.
When I spoke to Mr. West myself, that subject was never discussed. What was discussed was the possibility of my meeting with city council members so, as he put it, “they could tell their side of the story.”
I explained that would violate Kentucky’s open meeting law, and suggested he provide me with e-mail addresses of council members so that I may provide them with a list of questions they could answer.
It was also agreed upon that any council members without e-mail access would be provided a copy of those questions through Mr. West.
I received a list of those e-mail addresses moments after the phone call.
The next day, on July 24, I sent these questions to council members:
1) What was your main reason for running for political office in the city of Barbourville?
2) What do you see as the most pressing issue(s) for the city of Barbourville?
3) In addressing those issues, how do you plan to work together as a board to come up with solutions? What are some of those possible solutions?
4) In dealing with the budget itself, what issues concern you?
5) Concerning the day-to-day finances, what do you think could be changed, if anything?
6) With the recent changes and concerns expressed from the board about the water park and other city parks, are there specific things involving past management that cause you to question current finances? If so, what are those specifics?
7) How much research did you do concerning current versus past financial trends? Were city employees contacted with questions addressing those concerns?
8) Do you have financial concerns with other city departments, such as the police, fire or road departments? If so, what are they and how should the board address them?
9) Did you request the special audit, and what do you expect to uncover?
10) How will this board come to terms to be able to work together for the betterment of the city?
11) Why did getting the new budget voted on become such a situation with the city?
12) Do feelings of animosity exist between yourself and the mayor? If so, why, and how can the problem be solved? Do you believe that findings in this audit could create bad feelings with city employees, council members and/or the mayor? If so, how will you address those feelings to be able to work as a united council?
I never heard the first word from them.
So I waited. And waited. A week later I asked whether the list of questions had been received.
So, I made copies of these questions and visited with the city clerk’s office, requesting those questionnaires be mailed to council members.
That was done — but it didn’t matter. No one responded again.
Until last Thursday, Sept. 5.
The regular monthly Barbourville City Council meeting was going along as normal, with a bump here and there. About 40 or so were in attendance.
The meeting was nearly over — council members had the opportunity to voice comments concerning city business.
That’s when Council member Sherman Lawson questioned Mayor Thompson about some of his comments made in our story.
The talk quickly turned to the newspaper being one-sided and accusing me of being unprofessional — right during an open meeting.
I never speak during any type of governing body’s meetings — ever.
But after practically getting thrown under the bus by Mr. Lawson — I broke that personal rule.
I think I kept my composure for the most part, but I had heard about all I was going to listen to on the subject.
“Now wait just a minute,” I said, and explained to them what I have just shared with you.
“Well, we didn’t like the questions,” Mr. Lawson said, with a nod of agreement from Mr. West.
However, the phone number for the newspaper office is still listed in the yellow pages, as it is on my business card, which also includes my personal cell phone number and my e-mail address.
Council members have copies of those business cards.
And I reminded council members during that meeting about that — to which I received little response.
I ended my little defense speech, noting that this situation had nothing — absolutely nothing — to do with the business of the city. Mr. West argued that point, stating it was an open meeting. However, I am not a city resident, let alone a taxpayer, and the debate was not helping the city grow and strive for better places in the future.
And here is where my credo comes in.
Whether or not the council members are truly interested in the business of the city remains to be seen, especially the newest folks who were elected this last go-around.
But let me tell you what I see.
I see council members questioning details about money spent and how things are done, despite state audits which show clean financial bills of health.
I hear the snarky comments, and I’ve seen the occasional rolling eyes.
I see whispers between new council members during open meetings — a further perception of something a bit “wonky.”
I see council members who would do well to review some of Kentucky’s Revised Statutes on meeting rules.
I see some council members who need to do more learning and less talking.
It’s often said that attitude comes from the top and trickles down to the employees — I can only imagine how this constant “battle” has affected some of the city’s workers in the city’s day-to-day operations.
Here is the perception — I see a board who appears largely split down the middle when it comes to making decisions.
Thusly, few real decisions get made.
I feel the tension in the air when I enter the room.
I hear the words and see the nonverbal communication.
And I wonder if the council will ever get to a point where they can all work together.
Remember. Perception is reality.
John Ross is a reporter for the Times-Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org