Bolton: Columbia’s naysayers, doubters — and concerned citizens

Associate EditorJanuary 23, 2014 

“Criticism is a defense of mediocrity.… So let the doubters doubt. Let the critics criticize. Let the naysayers say no. We choose instead to believe. We choose to dream big and act boldly.”

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, State of the City, Tuesday

MAYOR Steve Benjamin is the right leader for Columbia — and at the right time.

Columbia has lots of possibilities in front of it, and it’s going to take someone with the right drive and leadership qualities who will challenge fellow council members, the business community, taxpayers and others to move beyond their comfort zones and stretch until the chief municipality in the Midlands becomes the world-class city Mayor Benjamin believes it can become.

His smart, hopeful and unifying message, affable personality and openness to big dreams and big ideas are infectious. His plan to make Columbia not simply a nice place to raise kids but one that lures new businesses and entices young professionals to stay here after college or relocate here from elsewhere is much needed. This community has lost far too many bright minds to what were deemed greener or more charming pastures that offered a higher quality of life with attractive amenities.

During his annual address Tuesday, the mayor, characterizing the state of the city, said, “We shine.” And he reiterated his desire for our capital city to continue to “shine” rather than sit back and never take risks or pursue challenging endeavors that could pay big dividends.

But in the process of painting a compelling picture of what Columbia can be, Mr. Benjamin once again pulled out his broad brush and painted a significant number of Columbians as “doubters” and “naysayers.”

Is this simply rhetoric to fuel his most ardent supporters or an attempt to shame some who raise objections to the mayor’s pet proposals to at least be quiet, if not join him? Whatever the intent, such tactics can be off-putting and counterproductive.

It simply is not true that everyone who disagrees with Mr. Benjamin — or with City Council — is out to sabotage a particular project or effort. Without a doubt, there are some on City Council — take Councilman Moe Baddourah, for example — and in this community who seem to oppose practically anything the mayor supports. And, yes, there are those who, believe it or not, don’t want to see this city grow and don’t want to see more diverse groups of people enjoying the fruits that come with that.

But there are also reasonable, well-meaning people who simply need their elected leaders to be more open in providing time and information to help them understand the issues. While some of those people still will disagree with the direction proposed, many are open to progress but need and deserve ample opportunity to study — not delay or obstruct — issues. They would like to hear open and public council debate. They would like the council to exercise due care. (News flash: It’s possible to exercise due care even when time is of the essence.)

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems that Mr. Benjamin and other members of the council believe that anyone who asks questions or requests more time to gather information is trying to unreasonably delay or kill proposals, when in fact they are simply trying to determine whether the city and taxpayers are getting the best deal possible.

Frankly, if the council would plan better and begin sharing information much earlier and schedule key council meetings at times that allow public attendance and feedback, some of the criticism would wain. More importantly, such efforts would help disarm the true doubters and naysayers, who look for the smallest opportunity to cry foul.

Tuesday’s public hearing on a proposed baseball stadium at the old State Hospital site on Bull Street is the most recent example of the council’s bad execution: First, the public hearing was held at noon — in the middle of the work day, when people’s ability to attend was limited. Even worse, the council tried to cram public comment as well as presentations by a developer, a team owner and city staff into that one meeting. On top of that, council members needed time to ask questions and deliberate. Considering that this was the first time the full council would debate what could be a $30 million or $40 million investment before the public, it made no sense to try to do so much in one meeting.

The council proceeded anyway and ultimately — approaching six hours later — voted to begin negotiations that could lead to construction of a stadium. That left many people with a bad taste in their mouths, not because they’re naysayers or doubters, but because of the poor process.

A similar scenario played out with the development agreement for the Bull Street project in July. The council gave the public less than two weeks to digest the proposal as it simultaneously put the agreement on a fast track for approval. When people asked the council to slow down, they were labeled naysayers and doubters.

In a July 8 guest column in The State defending the need to move quickly on the Bull Street agreement, Mr. Benjamin wrote: “Make no mistake: There are those who want us to fail. They believe that we cannot put aside politics and our own self-interest and come together. In fact, they’re counting on it. … But you and I know the truth. Because while doubters may doubt and naysayers say no, doers do.”

There is some truth in what the mayor says about doubters and naysayers. And, frankly, I’ve got no problem moving ahead when your I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed and the negative crowd is simply trying to obstruct.

But concerned citizens who genuinely want and need more understanding shouldn’t be left behind, wrongly labeled — or ignored — simply for caring about their city.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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