Murray Bishoff: Dialogue toward a shared vision

Saturday, November 4, 2017

One of the praises heaped on Monett from the recent healthy community summit, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, came over the willingness of people to be engaged in a community discussion.

Around 45 people spent at least part of two days itemizing, assessing, prioritizing and envisioning ways to promote health in Monett, and to build a support network that encourages active living. That would make Monett the kind of place where people want to live.

That’s no accident.

Monett leaders for decades have reached out in public meetings, not just routine government meetings, but outreach sessions seeking public input. The school district under Superintendent Charles Cudney held public visioning sessions, including a critical one right before buying the property where the high school now stands. The city held a major public meeting on Dec. 10, 1996, before establishing its tax increment financing (TIF) program. There have been public meetings on flooding, downtown improvements, starting a community foundation and shaping what became Monett Main Street. The process benefitted MoDOT in its many hearings over Highway 60, the airport and, most recently, the railroad bridge replacement on Business Highway 60.

It hasn’t always been a good time at Monett meetings. The Planning and Zoning Commission had some knock-down, drag-outs. But the people were heard. Generally, Monett leaders have not backed themselves into an intransigent position. Civic discourse has worked in Monett.

Perhaps more cultivation of public dialogue in other towns would bring more rapport with the public. Residents in Verona have turned out in strong numbers for their city council meetings over the last six months. It would seem like an ideal opportunity for partnerships, except everyone on the city council has backed into an immoveable position, and seldom does anything good come from that.

Purdy Mayor Bo Prock pointed out last month that his council completed everything on his to-do list for the first 90 days of his administration.

Issues the council has addressed brought some new people out to monthly meetings, not always happy about what the council had done, but at least people are paying attention.

Last week, the Aurora City Council took a step that no other bi-county town has done: establishing a TIF. The Barry County Commission created a near-TIF to fund infrastructure for the city’s Walmart, but took steps to keep from tapping into the property taxes collected by the school district. Aurora is moving toward a full TIF, like Monett.

Legal notice was given of what the Aurora council planned, in case someone tries to challenge that at a later date.

School district representatives and bankers were on hand, as well as representatives from lawyers Gilmore and Bell, acting as financial advisors.

By all indications, Aurora city leaders are going about the process right. Gilmore and Bell have provided excellent counsel to Monett city leaders and the Purdy school board. The city needs clearheaded civic leaders to serve on its TIF commission, and ongoing public dialogue. TIFs have a way of creating dissension, even if done right.

Aurora’s TIF district may be small and not raise any such questions. The redevelopment plan is still being written. People’s suspicions can be stoked, and no matter how well a program is explained, they believe what their fears tell them.

In recent years, we’ve seen fewer people willing to run for public office. Public engagement, like the EPA saw in Monett, is becoming all too rare.

That needs to change.

When leaders respond to public input, trust grows — dialogue improves. Leaders can feel the public backs them, not simply tolerates them.

Filings for public office open on Dec. 12. Where the Monett model is applied, stronger relationships develop. We can only hope to see roadblocks recognized and mutual interest overriding partisan positions, the best way out of the mire of gridlock hanging out there.

Murray Bishoff has served readers of The Monett Times since 1988. He can be reached at times-news@monett-times.com, or 417-235-3135.