An executive I knew was complaining to a group of subordinates that they’d failed to tell him about a looming problem.
“But we told you repeatedly,” they replied.
“Then, why didn’t you make me listen?” the executive answered.
I thought of this story as I read Alva James-Johnson’s story headlined, “Who knew what (and when) about property tax assessments?” in last Sunday’s Ledger-enquirer. Some days earlier, councilors said they were caught unaware when constituents complained about exorbitant increases.
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One councilor, Judy Thomas, said she was unaware of the increases until her tax bill arrived in the mail. But James-Johnson’s story showed that councilors, including Thomas, approved the re-assessment in 2014 and were notified in subsequent meetings of the spikes in valuations.
This isn’t the first time councilors expressed “surprise.”
Councilors were surprised to learn it would cost $1.2 million per year to operate the aquatics center. “I’m a little in shock,” said Skip Henderson, when the parks and recreation director gave council the number.
Councilors were surprised when the city manager approved large salary increases for department heads despite instructing him to “handle it” when the issue was raised in an executive session.
Councilors were surprised when the development deal for the old Clafin School site included a small cut for the advocacy group Friends of Clafin School.
And so forth.
I’m surprised they’re not surprised more often.
Councilors are part-time, with no staff, and with many complex matters to consider. Moreover, there are unintended consequences even the best-prepared councilors aren’t prepared for. As another executive I worked with often said: “It’s the unknowns you don’t know about that will bite you in the butt.” Oddly accurate.
But, too often, something else is going on. Expressing surprise, in reality, is a cover for when constituents complain. But, when councilors duck criticism with the argument, “I didn’t know, either,” they lose credibility.
And that’s what happened with the tax reassessment, as James-Johnson’s coverage makes clear.
That’s not leadership.
Leadership means telling constituents, “We’ve been working on this, with lots of public notice, for three years. And, we knew, there’d be increases. But, that’s why we have an appeals process, and I encourage you to take advantage of that, if you think the assessment of your property is inaccurate.”
Otherwise, councilors, like my executive friend, are left to say: Why didn’t you make me listen?
John Greenman publishes the travel site, www.36hoursincolumbus.com. He is a retired professor of journalism at the University of Georgia and the former president and publisher of the Ledger-Enquirer.