Failure to communicate'
By By Buddy Bynum / editor
Sept. 29, 2002
In the 1967 movie classic, "Cool Hand Luke," actor Paul Newman plays the title role of a war hero who is sentenced to two years in prison for cutting the heads off parking meters. He is drunk at the time, but this minor act of rebelling against authority gets him assigned to a backroads prison and chain gang, with back-breaking, dehumanizing, meaningless labor.
Luke escapes and after a day of freedom is recaptured and returned to the prison in leg irons, with the prison warden known as Captain telling him it's for his own good.
Captain, aptly played by one of filmdom's great character actors, Strother Martin, then cracks his whip and observes in one of the classic lines of dialogue from American film, "What we've got here is … failure to communicate."
Keep that image in your mind as we move now to the subject of Meridian's budget, particularly the ramifications of a proposed increase in water and sewer rates.
When he proposed a 28 percent increase over three years, Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith said it would be good for the city, bringing in more revenue to pay for needed system expansions, a coming round of more stringent federal water regulations, and to accommodate economic development and population growth.
About $790,000 from the water fund could be transferred into the city's general fund, tagged as "administrative costs." Once it gets to the general fund, that money could be used for any purpose and the wish list was long from police cars and fire trucks to asphalt for filling potholes and a city employee pay raise.
When the mayor's budget was formally presented to the city council, the mayor was out of town. Councilmen rejected it when they learned it already included the rate increase, which they had not voted on. They approved a city budget without the first year 10 percent increase in water rates, saying it was the first they'd heard about the increase.
The city's attorney called the council's action "irresponsible." Bond counsel and financial advisers reportedly told city officials they had to approve the increased rates in order to keep a good credit rating.
The mayor came back to town and said he would veto the budget the one without the water rate increase passed by the council. Behind-the-scenes negotiations over the budget continued through most of last week. A special council meeting on the budget was called for Monday. The city's new fiscal year starts Tuesday.
The comments about paying more for water being good for the city and, presumably, its residents, reminded me of Cool Hand Luke's line:
What we may have here is … failure to communicate.
Councilmen were insistent when they rejected the proposed increase in water rates that they had heard from their constituents and their constituents didn't want it. The mayor is just as insistent that the increase is necessary. Now, seems to me, they're all in something of a political bind, analogous to Luke being put in leg irons.
The political undertones, dissension and the who-knew-what-when mentality seems very confusing, leaving many members of the public to wonder just who and what to believe.
All of this could have been avoided with just a little more open communication among the people elected to run city government. All of the players need to be aware of all of the details.
Wouldn't it be great if, instead of a "failure to communicate," the mayor and council had worked together to adopt a realistic budget and then hailed it as a successful, communicative, collaborative effort that would move Meridian forward in the year ahead.