An Opinion: The Power of Listening

Recently a conversation took place on the internet that got me thinking about several things.  The discussion was held on Facebook on the Vernonia Community Bulletin Board and was started when someone suggested that community members attend a Vernonia Planning Commission meeting.

An interesting conversation emerged that went on for over a week, included over 135 separate postings and involved numerous participants.  The discussion centered on the City’s wastewater facility upgrade project and the possibility that utility rates could increase in Vernonia-again.  The conversation revealed many things.

People expressed concern, anger and outrage about the potential of higher water and sewer rates.  Others tried to explain the reality of the situation and the reason Vernonia has such high rates.  Some people encouraged citizens to become more involved.  Some said they would and  did.  People vented their frustration and a feeling of helplessness at increasing rates.

What I heard as I followed and listened to this conversation were several things.  First, there seems to be a lot of anger towards our elected officials around high utility rates.  Second, there is a lack of accurate knowledge and information in our community. Third, and I already knew this, but is always nice to be reminded, people really care about Vernonia.

First. lets clarify a few things.  The City of Vernonia has undertaken an upgrade of their wastewater facility, as required by DEQ.  The City has been out of compliance and dodging the issue for many years.  The City completed the first phase of the project back in 2005; the flood of 2007 has hindered the completion of the entire project.  The City is now moving forward and has plans for  a $5-6 million upgrade, which is down significantly from the original estimate of $11 million.  The City does not have the money in reserve to pay for this project and will have to borrow the funds needed.  DEQ will not allow us to put this off any longer;  putting it off to a later time only increases the end cost to the City.

So now let’s address the three main points I heard during that internet discussion.  First, no one ever likes to increase utility rates.  Citizens hate it and become outraged; elected officials avoid it like the plague.  That is one of the reasons you may not be aware that the City is currently wrestling with this issue—no one wants to talk about it. Past City Councils and city staff  have tried to delay the issue for the same reason-raising rates is unpopular and it hurts people in the community.

The Vernonia City Council is made up of citizens just like you and me-any rate increase affects their friends, family and neighbors, as well as themselves. They do not want to increase rates  but find themselves in a difficult spot.

The Vernonia Public Works Committee is a group of volunteers who are appointed by City Council to represent the citizens of our community and give input to the City Council about public works issues.  The current group has been very involved in the process of the wastewater upgrade as well as several other projects to make the Public Works department more efficient.  They, along with city staff,  have looked at just about every way possible to cut costs on the project.  Recently the Public Works Committee made a recommendation to City Council and the City Budget Committee that they refrain from raising water or sewer rates by holding or lowering operational costs.

The citizens serving on the City Council and city committees take their responsibility  seriously.  The issues they are asked to deal with are complex and require research and deep levels of  understanding.  They make great sacrifices of time and energy to attend meetings and be informed  and I believe the decisions they make weigh heavily on them.

In my opinion, being angry at the citizens who represent us is misguided and a poor use of energy.

Which brings us to my second point.  City staff and the City Council are aware that they have not done a good a job of getting information out to the public.  As the local news outlet, I don’t think Vernonia’s Voice has done as well as we could in talking about the issue of high utility rates, or other sensitive or negative issues.  The City has agreed to work with us to provide the City Administrator Report for each issue of our newspaper in an effort  to provide more detailed information about current issues and projects.  They also have been including information in the utility bills they send out monthly.  City Administrator Bill Haack has been monitoring conversations on the internet and occasionally joining them to add information.

My hope is that the City will continue to improve on their communication.  As for Vernonia’s Voice, we are upgrading our web presence with a new website that links to Facebook and hope that this will allow us to be more timely with information.  By including a community calendar, weather, polls and news updates between print publications, we hope to keep Vernonians better informed and be the source you go to to  find out what is happening in our community.

I understand that it is hard for people to stay informed  and up to date on current projects.  I know everyone doesn’t have time to attend meetings, read minutes  or serve on a city committee because of commitments to family and work.

The City has made a commitment to try to be more proactive in getting information to the public, but it takes two for communication to work.  The citizens need to take the time to read and listen to the information being provided and give feedback.

Which brings me to my final point-this is a community that obviously cares.  That was shown to me in the passion expressed by the writers in that recent conversation on the Vernonia Community Bulletin Board.  People were frustrated; others wrote long explanations trying to help the group understand the issues.  There seems to be a willingness to listen to other points of view, express personal concerns and in the end try to come together to find solutions

I am not sure if there is a good outcome to the wastewater issue and the cost of that problem.  The City is getting ready to begin their annual budget process and, like many of us, they do not have any extra resources.  The City Budget is similar to yours and my household budgets, only on a larger scale.  They have limited income that comes in, and expenses that go out.  Like many of us, the City has already tightened its belt and cut the fat in many areas of expenses.  I’m not sure how much more  there is to be cut.

So what can a citizen do who feels powerless about increasing utility rates?  Well, there may be more than you think.

Stay informed.  Read the information the City provides you in your utility bill and in the newspaper.  Go to the City website and read the minutes from important meetings.  Talk to your City Councilors and your neighbors about the issues that concern you.  Follow and join conversations on Facebook that relate to those issues.  Knowledge is powerful.

Learn about the process.  Governmental operation is complex and complicated.  There are rules about the way the City works that need to be followed.  If you understand the processes you will feel more empowered.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be afraid to ask for more information.  You may not always like the answers you receive, but at least you will know what is happening.

If you are really concerned about something, speak up.  Your elected officials need to hear from you if you disagree (or agree) with their direction.  Send a Letter to the Editor.  Go to City Council and speak during Topics From the Floor-that opportunity is early in the agenda and you don’t have to stay for the entire meeting for your chance to address your elected officials.  If you can’t attend a meeting, send your comments ahead of time and ask that they be read into the record.  Band together with others who have similar concerns and send a representative who is able to attend.  If you do attend, report what happened so others can also be informed.

Join a committee.  Several city committees have openings right now.  This is a great opportunity for citizens to influence what is happening.   At least one spot on the Planning Commission was recently filled because someone who was part of the conversation on Facebook was encouraged and got involved.

Run for elected office.  Our mayor and two City Councilors ran unopposed in the last election.  If you are unhappy with the way our city is being run than step up and do something about it.

We now have so many ways to communicate with each other,  which gives us an opportunity to share our views, provide each other with more information so we can stay informed and work together to try to find solutions to our issues. We are not powerless if we are willing to get involved and listen to each other.