MATTER OF OPINION: Stopping the flip-flopping

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By Robin Bass

It will undoubtedly become known as the great tree debate. City commissioners wrangling for an hour over whether or not to plant trees. First, deciding to go through with the project – only to take a one-eighty before the night was over.

Not many of you were there to witness it, so let me break it down from the beginning of this telling tree story.

City commissioners have spent a ton of money making improvements around town this year. They have been cutting down decaying trees, installing new drainage lines and pouring concrete sidewalks along city streets. Main Cross and Washington Street not only look smart, but will be safer with rain water flowing to retention ponds instead of ponding on the road.

Earlier this month, commissioners gave the Main Street Committee $5,000 toward purchasing a batch of new trees. The idea is to reforest the cityscape so that generations today and to come will benefit from the beauty and shade they will provide. The vote was split 3-2, so it should be no surprise what came next.

After getting a gander at the list of trees, a couple of commissioners were alarmed. They had just spent taxpayers’ money to dismantle a dozen or so 50-foot Water Maples and now the plan was to replace them with Red Maples with the potential to grow just as high – or more importantly, spread their roots systems damaging water mains, new sewer drains and sidewalks. The vote that time was 4-1 in favor of waiting until spring. This would give commissioners time to evaluate the list of trees and find ones less invasive.

At Thursday’s hour long rehashing, the plan was reversed and commissioners voted 3-2 to go ahead with the tree planting scheduled for Nov. 21. Proponents argued that the trees were already on their way and that a host of volunteers had already committed their Saturday to the effort.

Thinking the matter settled, I foolishly left the meeting. It wasn’t until the next day that I learned the commissioners changed their minds again. No tree plantings until spring.

The matter of when, or even if, trees get planted is not the real issue here. It is the flip-flopping that is so bothersome. Voters want their elected officials to be steadfast when making decisions. Not easily persuaded to go back and forth on the same topic, meeting after meeting.

Maybe the commission is experiencing growing pains. Now that the city finally has the revenue to do more than decide which bill to pay first, we are seeing more vocal opinions on how to properly expend those funds. But how can commissioners express those opinions in a manner that does not raise blood pressures?

One point brought out Thursday was that the city commission operates their meetings under no formal guidelines.  Basically anything goes. When the city attorney was asked his opinion on whether a motion to overturn a previous tree decision was permissible, he said there were no rules for him to base a position.

Many organizations follow the parliamentary procedures outlined in Robert’s Rules of Order to help their meetings run smoothly. In fact, use of these rules are so widespread that it was surprising to find that the commission never adopted their usage. Implementing Robert’s Rules of Order may not stop the flip-flopping, but establishing an official guideline of conduct will provide a sense of professionalism. It could also force the end of those hour-long discussions with a procedure called “move to question”.