Make government approachable to Southfielders


[The following is a South Oakland Eccentric editorial]

The Southfield City Council has what may be bigger problems on its hands than whether to accept a federal grant to hire police, or even how to balance the budget. It's that bad.

The problem isn't solely due to whether the council meetings are out of control, which they are. The real problem is why they are out of control. Let's take a look.

Clearly disturbed with the behavior of the audience at Monday night's meeting, some council members, gazing toward the back of the chambers, berated the verbal assaults on discussions. Certainly petitioners did not help their cause any by being disruptive, and some came from as far away as Ohio to speak on various issues.

Then there was Pam Gerald, a regular speaker during public comment sections of the agenda, who held up placards denouncing the tax increase approved earlier this year. She had five minutes to speak, as does everyone who approaches the podium during that section of the agenda. She knew it, but refused to leave. Council President Myron Frasier threatened to have her removed from the podium. Eventually, she left.

And Fred Bunker accused the city in general, and Councilman Sidney Lantz in particular, of turning his home into a sewer, his words. Before long, the two were involved in verbal shouting match that accomplished absolutely nothing.

The real problem the city faces, however, isn't a lady who won't walk away when her five minutes are done. And it isn't a man upset about sewers.

The real problem is even more complicated than the handling of recent meetings, which has drawn criticism, and more complicated than council members who become irate.

What the council and the viewing audience saw Monday night is a symptom of the real trouble.

People in Southfield are more than a little angry; they are really ticked off. Doesn't matter what the issue is, or who is doing the talking or the arguing. They have had enough, they are fed up. And they aren't about to take it anymore.

No doubt city officials and staff are easy targets for the general frustration that only in part originates from city policies. The economy has taken its toll on the city, with numerous foreclosures. To its credit, the city has tried to help with special seminars.

Couple job losses, pay reductions, and increasing costs for utilities, gasoline and health insurance with the recent tax increase, and the city has a volatile cocktail that no one wants to drink from.

Yet, school board meetings don't seem as frenzied. Oh, there are protests over privatization, but it's not the same. That's surprising when looking at the school taxes that residents pay.

So what's the difference?

One would only have had to listen to another resident who spoke Monday night - Stephanie English - to understand. English was a picture of calm and composure as she glided to the microphone. While she was wrong in calling for the council to meet in private - a violation of the state Open Meetings Act and something that destroys transparency in government - she correctly told the council that it would be wise to meet with dissenters, instead of trying to shut them up.

Therein lies what may be the difference between city and school governments. While school districts have an administration tucked away and largely out of sight from the average parent, there are principals and teachers and a host of support staff that have been hired, ultimately, to meet with parents and their students.

City Hall is always open, true, but does the average resident know who populates those offices? Not likely. School districts, on the other hand, are far more approachable.

It is a lesson for officials to study well.