I've written many times about how cumbersome government can be. We see it every day in the news – particularly at the federal level, where common sense seems to fly out the window when government gets involved. And as much as I hate to admit it, it happens at the local level, too. Now that's not to say we haven't made progress, but sometimes, we simply don't have a choice.
During my 4 ½ years on the council, I've asked a number of questions whenever a process or procedure came up that seemed overly burdensome or clunky. Most of the time, we fix it and move on. But there are times that the city's hands become tied – usually because of state laws – and we have to follow a process that wouldn't fly if we were a private business doing things in the private sector. Unfortunately, we're not a private business and this week was a textbook example of how that makes some things a bit more difficult to deal with.
To set the stage, I'd been hearing for a few weeks that work on a major project for Neosho was on the horizon. And from what I'd heard, it was going to be something very, very significant. When it was coming I didn't know, but I did know that IF it was coming (specifically – if it required something from the council), we'd have a few days of notice to prepare. That's because Missouri law says we must provide notice to the public, in advance, of ANY meetings or discussions the council would be having.
In most cases, the Missouri Sunshine Law gives us very little latitude in how we do things when it comes to meetings, thereby ensuring what we do is open and transparent (aka no backroom deals). Any topic we plan to discuss at a public meeting MUST be posted at least 24 hours in advance. The basic theory behind that is to prevent some action from happening without the public having a chance to know about it and, if some are interested, to attend the meeting to hear any discussion. That's pretty straight forward and makes a lot of sense.
If (and it's a very limited "if") something comes up that would best be done in a private meeting of the council, you have to look to the Sunshine Law to find permission. Otherwise, you simply "can't by law" do it. And there are times that, despite a willingness or need, even if it's a major project, the Sunshine Law's insistence on openness can trump a city's ability to discuss good things behind closed doors. And therein is the rub that can give the impression that the city (or certain members of the council in this case), doesn't care about economic development.
Last Thursday, when I opened my council packet, there was a planned closed session scheduled for the next council meeting. Since the mayor (by direction of our city charter) presides over all meetings, I make it a point to review agendas, get briefed by the city manager on topics planned for discussion, and, among other things, give my nod to ensure our council meetings are done in accordance with the law. And I do it for a number of reasons. One is that it's my job – that's what I'm elected to do. Another is a desire to have a smooth, well-run meeting (I don't like surprises). And yet another is my commitment to follow the law on open meetings — something the state auditor found didn't always happen in the past. Finally, since failing to do so can result in a substantial fine to (and ONLY to) elected members of the council, no business is so important that I'll risk a fine to hear about it.
Page 2 of 3 - My concern came while reviewing the agenda and speaking with the city manager about the closed meeting.
Specifically, he had no details about it other than being told by the person requesting it that it would be "OK." Well, at least for me, being told something will be "OK" is kind of like having a politician say "trust me." It's simply not enough for me to feel comfortable. I expressed my concerns to the city attorney as well. He, like the city manager, was not being told any details. That was a big red flag to me.
When Tuesday came and it was time to vote to go into a closed session, I again asked the city manager what he knew. Nothing had changed — he was still somewhat in the dark. That's why I voted "no" to have the closed session.
Some had already said "the mayor is going to try and kill this" or "don't tell the mayor, he's against economic development." Well, sadly, that's nothing more than a few people playing politics. For those with any basic understanding of Neosho city government — they know it takes three votes to do anything — the mayor has NO special power or authority — but nice try!
Ultimately, a majority of the council agreed to have a closed session. And ultimately the details came out once we were in our closed session regarding what was actually needed from the city. Personally, what was needed was nothing extraordinary. It's been done before during my tenure. The city's role was very straight forward and specific and would have easily been allowed to be handled in closed with no question — had we simply known the request.
For now, I'll leave you with a comment. If you need the city to be involved in something, be sure to let us know. We want Neosho to succeed and grow! Our city manager, by design, handles the day-to-day activities of the city. He's our point guy. Call him. Email him. Go see him. Tell him what you need. It happens every day. And while it may take some time, there is a process that works and works well (at least as government processes go.) It's only when the process isn't followed (accidently or on purpose) that we see the unnecessary dynamics of Tuesday night.
Personally, I'm excited. Hearing about good things happening, regardless of who is behind them, is good for Neosho. We should all be for economic growth and more jobs in Neosho. My only condition — do it right and follow the rules. Otherwise, make it happen!
To David Holley — I enjoyed the ride, brother. I'll see you again some day. Until next time: stay the course, keep the faith and may God bless Neosho.
Page 3 of 3 - Richard Davidson is mayor of Neosho.