Samantha Swindler

Samantha Swindler

I wasn’t particularly surprised with how Corbin city commissioners voted Monday night because, like all major decisions, it was made long before the public meeting.

What was surprising is how the commissioners and city manager reacted when a room full of citizens and business owners came to participate in the democratic process.

Monday night, facing about 60 members of the community, commissioners voted to cut Main Street Manager Sharae Myers’ position to part time, effectively ensuring the program’s leader will be forced to find another job.

The response to the audience presence, particularly from City Manager Bill Ed Cannon, was confrontational and, frankly, embarrassing. When audience members took turns speaking in support of Myers’ work, Cannon said “I’m not going to argue with you people” and “I’m through.”

When a man in the second row complained (validly) that he couldn’t hear the commissioners because they refused to speak into their mics, Joe Shelton told him to “come to the front.”

It was a packed room, and I’m pretty sure that’s why the city installed microphones in the first place.

At every other city meeting I’ve been to, there’s been a handful of audience members — usually me, another reporter, and a few city workers getting promotions. During every one of those regular meetings, the mayor would ask if anyone had any public comments to make. Of course the reporters didn’t have any public comments.

And yet, Monday night, when there was clearly a full-house of people ready to make comments, commissioners skipped that part of the meeting, hardly even looked up from their tables, and mumbled through a list of contractor bids for the first 15 minutes without acknowledging the crowd.

During city meetings, commissioners just go through the motions. They don’t really want public comments and they don’t really want the public there.

I showed up to Monday’s meeting because I support Corbin’s Main Street Manager Sharae Myers. In a town where so much government goes wrong, her program and minimal budget actually produced results for the community.

The city manager claims Myers’ position was cut from full-time to part-time because of a tight budget. (By the way, he changed his story at the meeting. Previously, he told both me and the other paper she was being cut to 15 hours a week. After seeing that state grants were only available to cities that have a manager working at least 20 hours a week, he claims this is what Myers will be working.)

Now, I’m all for governments cutting their budgets. I’d much rather see non-essential programs cut before raising taxes... but are we cutting the right programs?

Without lifting an eyebrow, the city approved a $50,000 contribution to the Corbin Economic Development Agency, an organization which, for the life of me, I can find no reason for its existence. In the four years I have lived here, I have struggled to understand what that agency does. We send a reporter to the board meetings every month. Many months the meetings are cancelled because not enough board members show up. Other months, the meetings are so boring and pointless, you probably don’t remember reading the stories.

The employees of this agency received three-percent salary increases in the 2010-11 budget — more than city employees (and I’m sure most taxpayers) will be getting.

I have long pushed for government accountability. And while I realize that economic development is a difficult concept to quantify, that does not mean there should be absolutely no accountability for that office. The members of those boards don’t even know what the director is working on because of “confidentiality” of potential businesses. The director’s reports are notoriously vague and don’t even offer the slightest hint of what we might be getting for his $78,000 salary. After this many years, you’d think we’d see some kind of results from that investment instead of just a bunch of circular ad-speak.

Economic development isn’t just about luring in a 100-person factory every five years. It’s also about improving the community to make it attractive to both potential businesses and tourists.

In today’s economy, tourism can have a far greater return on its investment for Corbin. And if you look at it that way, Myers has done far more for economic development than anyone over at CEDA.

Downtown has been improved with more than $80,000 in federal grants. Myers has worked with regional tourism officials and brought music and art to Corbin’s downtown. She’s been the only one with the foresight to try to capitalize on the tourism dollars just waiting to be reaped through our connection to Colonel Sanders — I hope Corbin continues to work on a downtown park and play about his life.

These are long-term projects, but we are finally seeing some progress.

Several people made comments at Monday’s meeting about how pretty downtown now looked. But Myers has done more than just plant flowers downtown. She has created a sense of community — a sense that has for so very, very long been lacking in Corbin.

The effect of that is, perhaps, hard to quantify, but you could see part of it Monday night.

Members of a community come to city commission meetings to share what is on their hearts and minds. Members of a community rally around something they support.

Before Main Street, I don’t think you could get folks to rally around any program in Corbin.

So, residents, continue to disrupt politics as usual, with whatever your thoughts are on how your local government is run. I would have welcomed those opposed to keeping a full-time Main Street program because even though I personally disagree with that viewpoint, I love public debate and I love our democratic republic.

That is how politics is supposed to work. It isn’t supposed to be two or three folks making decisions that affect the entire town without any input from those they are serving. Public servants are supposed to represent the will of the people, not take it as a personal affront when the public actually shows up to a public meeting.

Don’t despair because commissioners didn’t listen this time. Come to every meeting. Discuss local decisions.

And remember, there will be another chance to participate in the democratic process — it’ll be in November, when we vote in the next set of city commissioners. Sadly, with the passing of Dennis Lynch, and if Bruce Farris is unable to run due to health reasons, there will not be a contested race. Challengers Joe Butch White and Ed Tye will take office.

If you’re not happy with those choices, I suggest someone start a write-in candidate campaign and challenge those who, occasionally, ought to be challenged.

Because we really need a new kind of politics here.

Samantha Swindler is the managing editor of the Times-Tribune. She can be reached at sswindler@thetimestribune.com

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