Due to a verbal tug-of-war, it’s now back to Square 1 for the St. Joseph City Council to determine what to do about creating a new (or refurbished) government center.
A citizen outcry against plans to tear down the old city center and build a new one on the same site recently caused the council to reject all bids for a new government-center project.
By all admissions, the current building, which houses both city staff and police-department staff, is terribly tight for space. The structure has problems: leaks, heating-ventilation flaws and more.
For at least two years, the council studied options, considering what St. Joseph residents wanted, according to citizen surveys, input at public meetings and other information. The council’s conclusion: tear down the current city building and on its site build one what will include a community-center meeting room.
Whoops. That’s when the public outcry began. Who, asked the opponents, wants or needs a community room? Was the inclusion of a community room just a ruse so the city could use half-cent sales-tax funds, whose expenditures must be “regional” in nature, to justify using those funds for the government-center project?
As confrontations intensified, it became startlingly obvious the rancor was caused largely by ongoing miscommunications and misunderstandings. Apparently, St. Joseph residents wanted a community center, not a community room.
At a public meeting led by St. Joseph Mayor Rick Schultz, those divisive attitudes became more focused. Opponents accused the council of not communicating well with the public it is supposed to serve. The mayor and council emphasized repeatedly the public was given chances, time and again, to express opinions but almost nobody showed up at council meetings. And that is so true. Too often, in all cities – not just St. Joseph – people do not pay attention to city business or never attend council meetings. The common excuse is “they won’t listen to us, anyway.” As a result, many townspeople are taken by surprise when they learn, months or years later, what they should have known all along – that, in this case, for example – the council decided to build a new government center with a community room.
Another excuse is this: “There was nothing in the newspaper about it.” Some of the people who never attend council meetings don’t read their weekly or daily newspapers, either. Of course, there was “nothing in the newspaper” if people neglected to read what was, in fact, in the newspaper.
A former St. Joseph Newsleader reporter, TaLeiza Calloway, reported several times on the government-center plans. Then she got married and moved away. The other reporter, in her place, is a superb human-interest feature writer, but is not trained in city-government coverage. The Newsleader has been seeking to fill that gap.
In the meantime, people should not carp too much about their city council. That second-guessing carping happens in cities far and wide. Citizens who are apathetic should not blame the powers that be, once a decision has been made and after people have had many chances to give input.
In no way, shape or form did the St. Joseph council or staff try to bamboozle or mislead city residents. They acted in good faith based on the research they had in hand, and they made a decision, rightly or wrongly depending on who is judging it, while being squeezed between a rock and hard place.
Building a new government center is not necessarily constructing a “Taj Mahal,” as it’s so often termed. Retro-fitting a current building can be prohibitively expensive, a fact many do not understand. Too many citizens think a homely quonset hut is the way to go, the uglier the better to defray expenses. That doesn’t always translate into sense (common) or cents (monetary).
What’s ironic is that at the mayor-led meeting with the public, time and again people said they do not need or want a community-meeting room. At that meeting in the St. Joseph Fire Hall, people were lined up around the cram-packed room, standing because there were no chairs or any other kind of space to sit. One gentleman, at the end of the meeting, piped up with this: “Could you please get a bigger room when you hold a meeting like this again?”
It’s good the council is going back to the drawing board. It’s also good perhaps St. Joseph residents have learned to attend council meetings, special public-input meetings and to keep informed about what their city government is doing. That’s the very foundation of democracy on every level. It’s called well-informed participation.