The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


April 4, 2014

Anson Burlingame, guest columnist: Fewer platitudes, more answers please

JOPLIN, Mo. — How can the democratic process provide real substance to enable voters to make thoughtful decisions in important elections?

I must say that concerns me a lot today in Joplin in our information age. When complex issues are at stake in an election, how can voters make good value judgments about each candidate and how they would resolve the issues?

Voters should understand the fundamental issues, not just the sound bites underlying the upcoming election. They are important, critical if you will to Joplin’s future in the coming years. Transparency is a buzz word often used, but some in government have failed rather miserably on that count here in Joplin. So what should be done is the question and candidates generally don’t provide substantial answers. “I will be transparent with everyone” is a platitude, not a real answer, in my view.

Simply stated, candidates do all possible to avoid taking public positions on complex and controversial issues in order not to anger anyone. And when really inflammatory matters come to the forefront, such as the recent firing of City Manager Mark Rohr, that action alone becomes the basis on which many people decide how to vote. It is more fundamental than just that one action by the council, in my view.

Many candidates repeat the concern about lack of progress in rebuilding major public-private partnership projects. Yet few candidates understand the challenges in such venues — such as mixing public and private money to build projects — and certainly none offer a “better way” to move forward.

Face it folks, no private investor alone will undertake such huge projects when the project is designed to meet the fundamental needs of a city. Creating a “new and more beautiful city” does not in itself make money for a single business. It takes planning, long and broad experience in beginning and ultimately completing such projects, and outside assistance is needed. But for a candidate to echo public sentiment that we are “not moving dirt fast enough” is a facile sentiment and demonstrates lack of understanding of such project development.

Move to a central theme in the current race for Joplin Schools Board of Education.

“We need to take better care of teachers” (or words to that effect) is often heard as a platitude in the current campaign. My concern is much broader. Our public education system, in my view, has been on a significant downward trend for several decades now and America is suffering as a consequence. The crux of the problem seen in Joplin and throughout most public education systems in America is the failure of students to gain both the academic knowledge and the ability to behave as good citizens in a modern society.

Only in private conversations with some teachers and other educators have I heard meaningful discussion of the fundamental problem of student achievement. You never hear that issue addressed in the current campaign or platform statements developed by candidates with substance behind the slogans. Those are complex and difficult choices to make by people leading our public education system. Why not talk about solutions, broadly and in depth?

One final point, “listening carefully to what the people want.” That comes with any public office and every public official must do so, listen carefully. But far more is needed to govern. People in power must talk to the people, one at a time if needed, and be willing to publicly discuss their own views on controversial subjects.

Wise decisions, some perhaps unpopular decisions, must be made by executives, people leading public institutions on policy issues. If such executives spend all their time “listening to the people,” then little gets accomplished in the cacophony of the information age.

Members of our city council and BOE must make decisions and be open and honest as they do the hard work to reach their own conclusions as to what is best for our city and our schools. And when controversial decisions are made, appropriately or inappropriately, government officials must have the courage to tell us why they voted as they did on a given issue. No sound bites please. Try real discussion, in depth and reflecting deep understanding of exactly what is at stake.

If we the people do not have access to and the ability to understand the inner workings and hidden mechanisms of government in a democracy, then democracy struggles to govern effectively.

Now go make up your minds for whom to vote on April 8. Our future government, locally, is waiting for our collective direction in that regard.

Anson Burlingame lives in Joplin.

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