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Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Reflections on Evanville--1994-2002" by Paul Baker

A Healthy Community
A Healthy Community: Introduction
At the request of Dick Woulfe I offer reflections on my experience as a resident of Evansville from 1994 through 2002, and as an alderperson 1998-2002. I welcome this opportunity.

As Dick observed recently, “Just as in the current financial mess on Wall Street, we are hearing that "nobody knew"..."it was all a surprise." Although Evansville has no Wall Street crisis, but it does face challenges that result from plans made and actions taken years ago. And those connections are sometimes missed. Dick continued, “There are things that everybody knew and we seem to have forgotten what they were. That is the burden of history and one that can be difficult.”

So Dick asked me to share my reflections on the issues that seemed to shape the character of Evansville during those years in hopes that maybe cloudy issues might be clarified.

In summary, this is what I’ll discuss. At its best, Evansville is a healthy community with social capital: Engaged, involved citizens donate their time and energy to local organizations. Citizens contribute to local government by serving on committees, running for elected office, and working with city staff to solve problems and plan for the future. Healthy businesses prosper by offering high quality products and services, by collaborating with elected and appointed officials as partners, and by observing the letter and the spirit of the law. Together, citizens, government staff, elected leaders, and business owners work toward visionary, comprehensive, and sustained, community planning. Planning considers the long term welfare of the local environment, housing, quality of life issues, business growth, and infrastructure. Finally, community residents expect and deserve responsible journalism which provides accurate news and insightful commentary on civic challenges and opportunities.

A good educational system is certainly an important part of a healthy community, that’s beyond the scope of this article.
All these issues interrelate. None is less or more important than another.

A Healthy Community: Part 1. Social capital

Evansville provides many opportunities for citizens to participate. Newcomers like my wife and me in 1994 found these opportunities introduced us to new friends, offered training in leadership skills, and helped us appreciate the city’s history and its resources.

As new residents in 1994 my wife and I were eager to become part of the community. Our ability to integrate was limited because of a couple things. We don’t have kids and didn’t participate in school activities which do form a large part of Evansville’s social capital. Second, we were among the 50 percent of Evansville residents who worked out of town, so we were around only during the evening and on weekends.

But there were still plenty of opportunities to make friends. We joined the Friends of the Library and eventually took leadership positions. I joined the Lions club and eventually served as president. I participated in community theater. My wife participated in downtown redevelopment. I played in a community band and contributed a few articles and photographs to The Review. We met some really cool people in the process.

During this time the Evansville Community Partnership was formed. My wife and I were eager to participate because this new organization promised to bring together people with different agendas and different priorities in a new and productive way.

After living in town for a while we noticed a low rate of citizen participation in local government. That vacuum allowed for policies and planning to be disproportionately influenced by assertive people with financial interests. Granted, meetings can be boring, but when citizens don’t attend local government meetings, or show up only when they have a complaint, they’re handing over their community’s future to those who want to make a quick profit. One citizen’s letter to the editor of the newspaper of record rightly observed that “whatever the developers want, they get. There are no citizens at the plan commission meetings.”
I know newcomers to any town are reluctant to get involved, to “rock the boat,” but lack of participation in public issues hurts the community. If your alderperson is not very good, don’t settle for that. Don’t be afraid to run yourself. But be prepared for a wall of resistance. Some residents who were born in Evansville made a strong distinction between themselves and everyone else. At that time, one major and overriding qualification for being elected to city council was the claim, “I have lived here all my life.” We weren’t born in Evansville, so were somewhat suspect. Some labeled us “transplants.”

A Healthy Community: Part 2. Government

A healthy community has an effective government that involves its citizens. An engaged citizenry serves on committees, runs for public office, and votes regularly.

One recurring problem, probably not limited to Evansville, was relatively light turnout at election time. And it was often the case that incumbents ran unaopposed. Sometimes a council seat was vacant and people had to be recruited just to run. When nobody runs for office, and when voting turnout is light, citizens deserve what they get.

Among the challenges we observed during our eight year residency were antagonism between a small core of outspoken businesspeople and city hall. The city administrators who served during those years were often seen as impeding business growth. Their professional training and objective viewpoint often did not align with the local ingrained business culture. It was a continuing struggle for both administrators (and their allies) to justify their existence.

After living in Evansville for 4 years and getting a feel for local issues, I ran for a seat on city council, challenging the incumbent. I enjoyed campaigning and meeting people in my Ward. At that time Steve DiSalvo was mayor and Mike Davis was the recently hired city administrator. I was elected in Spring 1998 to represent Ward 1 and was re-elected in 2000. By serving on the plan commission, park board, and the public works committee I began my education in local government and city administration.

Later that year our city administrator resigned to accept a good job in a nearby city. A professional talent scout helped us find a replacement. The young woman we hired was articulate, bright, dedicated, and well trained, and she had a spine of steel. She grew into her role as city administrator and, in my opinion, did a good job.

As is unavoidable for anyone in such a position, she rubbed some people the wrong way. Those who had for a long time profited from traditional ways of conducting business in Evansville were accustomed to relatively informal ways of getting things done. Their “old boys’ network often got what it wanted from cronies on city council. When it became apparent that this (quite young) administrator (and a woman, at that) brought with her a different way of doing things, the fireworks began to fly.

Following her professional training, she respected the city’s planning guidelines and zoning maps. She was friendly yet firm when people wanted special exceptions. Because she knew how to say “No” when necessary, she was accused of being “mean and cold.” She was said to cause “headaches and restrictions” for people trying to start a new business. She was painted as a hateful dictator who had “our entire business community in turmoil.” Some with vested interests argued that Evansville didn’t need an administrator, period.

But she wasn’t alone. Councilpersons were sometimes punished for trying to do the right thing. I often saw interpretations of private property rights run smash against city regulations, with prolonged and very public consequences. One city resident had a sizeable (and illegal) collection of junked and rusting cars on his property. Neighbors complained to their alderperson (me). When the resident was asked to align with city regulations and clean the place up, he became The Victim. He claimed the city was “picking on him.” He not only blamed his councilpersons, he painted personal vendettas on his rusting vehicles. [For further reading, see the Wikipedia article on histrionic personality disorder.]
I had never before lived in a city smaller than a quarter million people. I had never before served in elected office. My limitations as councilperson were repeatedly brought to my attention in stinging and all-too-public letters to the editor of the newspaper of record.
Had I to do the Council thing again, I would certainly do some things differently.

I would make more effort to understand long-time residents who seemed particularly disillusioned with, and sometimes bitter about, city government.
I would spend more time talking in private with the strong personalities in the business community, because back-and-forth discussions at city meetings are not sufficient.

I would not react so defensively when letters to the editor called me out for decisions I made or things I (allegedly) said.

A Healthy Community: Part 3. Business

Living in Evansville my wife and I met many business people who served the community well. They gave back to the community by supporting activities and programming, like the Lake Leota race, concerts in the park, etc., and by volunteering for community projects including highway trash pickup and downtown cleanups. The people managing the grocery store, the insurance agencies, the banks, the pharmacy, and accountancy services come to mind.
Businesses like these prosper by offering high quality products and services, by working productively with elected and appointed officials as partners, and by observing the spirit and the letter of local ordinances.
But there were exceptions. One local businesses had for years defied local ordinances. Located along Main Street, it took in old cars and fixed them up for sale. Its properties along East Main Street included some decent looking rehabbed cars and far too many junkers still awaiting repair: Cars and trucks with shattered windshields, mirrors broken off, rusted out bodies. Not only an eyesore and an embarrassment, they were illegal. This business repeatedly ignored warnings to clean up its property. After extended discussion, city council finally moved to revoke its permit. Then all hell broke loose. Among its small core of supporters was one resident who complained to the newspaper of record: If this business lost its conditional use permit “it would leave these people with no means of making a living.” Well, I wondered, whose fault is that? Who’s the victim here? The business finally decided to comply with regulations. It cleaned up its act, and kept its permit.

This was one of many clashes between business and city hall. Finally, someone contacted a community development agency and asked them to come to town and check things out. In Spring 2000, prior to the establishment of the Evansville Community Partnership, Bert Stitt and Associates met with the ‘business owners group’ to hear and consider their position. After listening to their complaints about perceived unfair treatment from city staff, Stitt responded, “Then you are being a victim. You’ve got to stop being a victim and figure out how to make people listen to you, without yelling.”

It was my opinion then, and is now, that businesses often fail not because of over-regulation, but because of a serious lack of business know-how. Some store fronts opened to provide a product or service without apparently first researching whether there was actually a demand for that product or service. But we often heard complaints that it was just too hard being a business person in Evansville. It was all head-achey and stressful. Typical thinking in those days went along the lines, “My business isn’t making much money, and it can’t be my fault, so the solution must be. . .

(a) Blame City Hall staff or the nearest alderperson.
(b) Ask the city to install more parking spaces.
(c) Install a drive-through window.
(d) Move my business from downtown out to the East side.
(e) Erect a giant electric sign along the road (and leave it on all night) and attach a big sign on the side of my building. Plus a sign in front of the building.
(f) Blame Evansville residents for shopping in Janesville and Madison.
(g) Diversify my business. I’ll get a stack of conditional use permits and onto my property I’ll add an electronics store, a florist, some office space, a goat farm, an exercise gym, a nursery, storage mini-warehouses, and a nuclear munitions plant. I don’t care whether they belong in this part of town. Why should anyone else?
At that time the city’s Economic Development Committee was trying to come up with solutions, but didn’t have the capacity to serve as an effective resource. I hope that the Community Partnership and the Chamber have been able to improve things since then.

A Healthy Community: Part 4. Planning & Development

First, three brief anecdotes.
One bright weekend morning I was out in Ward 1 distributing my little newsletter or campaigning for re-election. A woman living on Garfield Avenue west of South Fifth Street showed me the results of water runoff from new construction. Muddy water came from unfinished lots, across the street, into her yard, channeling by her house, and continuing southward into adjoining lots. That kind of thing hadn’t happened before, she said. How long was it going to continue?

On January 13 1999 residents living along Lincoln Street complained to city council about recent flooding in their yards and in the streets, thanks to aging storm sewers. What was the city going to do about it? Thanks to new housing developments West of South Fifth, the dated storm sewer system was serving more streets and houses than originally planned. This was a reminder that expensive infrastructure maintenance had been put off. If the problem weren’t addressed, more property damage would result.
Four months later, the newspaper of record ran a front page story and large photos illustrating a swollen Allen Creek and a submerged Leonard-Leota Park. As it curved from the park to Hwy. 14 and then on toward the Varco-Pruden plant, it spilled over into East Main Street, threatening a restaurant and flooding Varco Pruden.

The story made for great headlines and photos but, as I recall, the newspaper presented the flood as some sort of freak accident, an out-of-the-blue event. If the story had been contextualized, the flooding would have been seen as a direct result of mismanaging Lake Leota, its upper reservoir, and the farms upstream whose phosphates and topsoil drained into Allen Creek. The phosphates contributed to weed growth in the lake, while the topsoil slowly filled it in. Shallow water retains more heat, which further encourages weed growth and unwanted fish species. Over the years, swimming became undesirable and canoeing became difficult.
A healthy community has comprehensive sustained long term community planning which addresses things like maintaining infrastructure and controlling stormwater runoff.

During one spring election, one incumbent councilperson made an interesting comment in his campaign statement. He said he favored planning growth “by adhering to the Master Plan when possible yet being flexible enough to allow changes where results would be beneficial” (emphasis mine). He didn’t say exactly when the Plan might be impossible to follow, nor did he who would benefit from such changes. He didn’t really need to. This was a wink and a nod to the folks who constantly pushed for development and chafed at irritations like land use planning.
These were the same people who would attend plan commission meetings with news of an exciting opportunity: A major national chain is scouting Evansville as a place to put in a store! And we’d be lucky to get them here! (Unstated: And I’d personally profit from helping them build and locate here.) These were the same people who decided to become mini-developers and landlords and to pour new concrete and build more aluminum buildings and rent space to motley conglomerations of little shops. The same people who became existentially defensive when city staff and elected leaders decided it was time to create an ordinance that would limit the size and height of signs.

The same people who built restaurants, car washes, and gas stations a stone’s throw from residential housing and then seem surprised when homeowners complained about noise and industrial strength street lights that shone directly into their living rooms at night.
During those years, new business development plodded along, but housing starts soared. The Economic Development Committee realized that the city was being strangled by lack of taxable business property to help offset the expenses of new housing growth. But land purchases and subdivision development blossomed on the West side, leading to undesirable but completely foreseeable consequences. The new subdivisions near Porter Road gobbled up more farm land and upset the natural flow of water drainage. More houses required more streets, more sewers, and more utilities. New residents often owned more than one vehicle, adding to city traffic, and especially along Main Street, Garfield, and Lincoln.

A hefty percentage of these new houses were being built outside the city limits, in the Town of Union. Many people prefer new houses to old, and want larger lots and larger garages. That’s fine. But all those property taxes went to the Town, not to the City. And the city nevertheless ended up contributing resources for building the streets, and sidewalks ,and sewers; providing library services; maintaining parks; and providing , even recreational services. The idea of charging slightly higher rates for non-city residents to swim where the concept of non-resident rates at the pool or participate in youth baseball, for example, was considered was particularly offensive. The city’s property tax base, in fact, was being cut off at the knees by housing starts outside city limits. But this was rarely questioned.

These were visible and short-term consequences. A less visible, but equally daunting expense was the need to build more and larger school buildings. In the late 1990s and early 2000s Evansville’s elementary, middle, and high schools were bursting at the seams. We needed a new high school, and all the other buildings needed remodeling and expansion. Kids were being taught in broom closets because teachers didn’t have enough classrooms. Some teachers had no permanent classroom and had to push their carts of supplies from place to place throughout the day.
There’s an equation that was rarely discussed:
More housing + more young families + more children = more school buildings + higher property taxes.

A Healthy Community: Part 5. Journalism

If you’ve stayed with me thus far, thanks for your patience. I’m almost done. Now I’ll try to tie all these things together.
A healthy community has a hub for information sharing and discussion of civic issues. That role has traditionally fallen to the community newspaper. With the rise of blogs, the role of community newspapers has diminished somewhat. But still, a healthy community needs credible, responsible journalism. A local newspaper should support and inform discussion in all aspects of civic discussion. When there is no journalism, or poor journalism, everyone suffers.
In my 8 years as an Evansville resident I read the newspaper of record regularly. When this long-time family-run newspaper passed from the older generation to the younger I noticed something happen. What had been a folksy, upbeat weekly declined into a partisan, sometimes vicious publication that rewarded its cronies and punished its critics. I was appalled at how blatantly it skewed its articles in favor of its allies and how misleading was its coverage of city government. The new editor seemed to lack any journalism training. The articles regularly blurred, or erased, the line separating news from editorial opinion. The paper became defensive, sometimes childish, and sometimes mean.
Ranting letters were printed on the front page as if they were news articles. The tirades of one disgruntled councilperson who had resigned in a fit of bluster became a frequent front page item. Writers with perennial anti-government chips on their shoulders were allowed to viciously mock city government staff and elected officials and, for a while, to write anonymously as “A Concerned Citizen.”

The paper’s new editor/main reporter attended meetings of city government to cover the proceedings. But the standards of good journalism were breached as this person disregarded professional norms and treated these meetings as living room chats, often interrupting, voicing opposition, and complaining. Never before had I seen such a thing. That behavior should not have been tolerated. But it was.
It was with great relief that many of us welcomed a new competitor. Started by a credentialed journalist and co-edited by another good writer, this alternative weekly newspaper offered a rational voice, and journalism with integrity. It built a respectable subscriber base and survived for 3 or 4 years. As is often the case, a town of Evansville’s size could not support two newspapers.
With the rise of blogs and other forms of citizen journalism, it’s not as important for there to be another printed newspaper. Discerning people will turn to citizen journalists for information and analysis. Those who really care and want to get involved will contribute to these blogs or start blogs of their own.
-- Paul Baker

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