Missing: Transparency and listening skills
To the Editor:
The February 10 Sylva Town Board meeting invited public comment regarding a new zoning drdinance and a proposed social district in downtown. The first casualty of the meeting was the lack of space and thus, access.
Waiting their turn to speak, citizens who could not fit into the boardroom, packed the hallway. Standing in the hall for the majority of a three-hour meeting, the lack of comfort did not deter the citizens’ desire to be present and to participate in the democratic process. I question the board’s decision to have two public comment agenda items crammed into one meeting.
The second casualty was a lack of transparency. As the meeting opened, Mayor Linda Sossamon indicated they had rearranged the agenda. This meant little to those in the hall who did not have a copy of the agenda and could not hear her as the meeting first started. Moving “old Business” to the end appeared to have little consequence. As public comments concluded, most attendees thought both issues tabled until the board voted on February 24, as had been repeated multiple times during public comment about the Zoning Ordinance. This resulted in a premature exit by most attendees, who did not realize there was indeed to be a vote on the second issue (the proposed Social District).
The board resumed to discuss Old Business and then reintroduced the social district proposal as New Business and proceeded to vote. They did so in the absence of most who cared deeply enough to have stood in a hallway for three hours to voice their concerns. A small number of citizens who had a seat in the room, understood what was happening and did stay. Ultimately the board chose a rush to vote (3 to 2 in favor) on a poorly publicized proposal that received no favorable comment. They did so without the discomfort of the public eye. I appreciate that Commissioners Mary Gelbauch and Ben Guiney chose to listen to the public.
Commissioners, David Nestler, Greg McPherson, and Natalie Newman chose to completely disregard the multitude of concerns stated by a diverse cross-section of citizens, including residents and downtown merchants, bar and restaurant owners. Not one comment spoke in favor of the proposal and only two could be described as neutral. Many concerns were expressed and many unanswered questions asked regarding public safety, inclusion of a public park into the district, trash, restroom access, policing, and how the additional costs were to be paid. There were no answers.
The board could have chosen to postpone this vote until questions were answered. But on February 10, three Commissioners opposed the majority of citizens represented, including the very constituents they claimed the proposed district would benefit (downtown bars, restaurants, and merchants).
This board needs to act with greater transparency. Three commissioners, (Nestler, Newman, and McPherson) need to be reminded they are there to serve the greater good and they need to learn to listen.