Columbia, SC — On Jan. 21, Columbia City Council held what was advertised as a “public hearing” on a minor league baseball stadium on the Bull Street campus. But if it was truly meant to give people an opportunity to offer input, there were a couple of problems.
First, it was scheduled for noon, when many working folks were unable to attend. And it began with an hour-long presentation from Hardball Capital, the company that would operate the stadium. That hour seemed like a long time for the citizens who turned out in the middle of the day believing they were there to be heard. Some left frustrated, and one complained that he had been lured there to listen to a sales pitch for the stadium.
A week earlier, Councilwoman Leona Plaugh and I organized a public forum on the issue at Woodland Park. The city’s independent baseball consultants were asked to present the results of a study they had conducted. A representative from Hardball Capital was also in attendance.
An overwhelming majority of those in attendance were against using public funds to build a stadium.
So were their opinions respected? According to The State, the mayor complained that the representatives from Hardball Capital weren’t permitted to speak before the citizens spoke.
His comments underscore a fundamental problem at City Hall: We prefer to speak rather than listen. We seem preoccupied with how much time we are permitted to talk, and far less concerned about hearing the views of those we serve.
This is not a new problem. The Bull Street development agreement was put together behind closed doors and ram-rodded through the approval process this summer with very limited public input. The final vote was held over the Independence Day holiday for a contract that ultimately benefits the developer more than the citizens — leaving city residents on the hook for at least $70 million, including many costs usually borne by the developer. (If you think this vote was timed deliberately to inhibit citizen input, you’re certainly not alone.)
There are strong feelings on both sides of the stadium issue. I’m reluctant to commit millions of public dollars to a new stadium when many more pressing needs remain unmet. Frankly, I wish we had approached our public safety challenges — such as hiring a police chief and addressing violent crime — with this same sense of urgency.
But regardless of one’s position, what’s clear is that we shouldn’t proceed with a costly new stadium without buy-in from the public.
My preference is to hold a series of public input sessions in which we listen — really listen — to the people. Let’s invite the public, keep our own lips shut and hear what’s on their minds. (The mayor and council members are afforded ample opportunity to share our own views through the media. Opportunities to hear from our constituents are far more valuable.)
Or perhaps an advisory referendum is in order. Is this what I want? No. It’s the job of elected officials to listen to the people we represent and act accordingly. But an advisory referendum could be valuable, especially if it’s the only outlet people have to sound off.
I can anticipate the argument against both options: Citizen-input sessions might take too much time. And holding a public vote would cost money (although the monetary costs could be alleviated by holding the vote during the June or November election.) But the time or money spent would pale in comparison to the price we’d pay for once again thumbing our noses at citizens who rightly expect their voices to be heard.
The proposed stadium represents one of the biggest gambles in city history. If we do it, we must do it right. We can’t afford a repeat of the Bull Street deal, which helped chip away at the already deteriorating trust between citizens and City Hall.
Before we commit citizens to handing over more of their hard-earned money, we must take every measure to ensure that our actions truly reflect their wishes.
Mr. Baddourah represents District 3 on the Columbia City Council; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.