OEDEL: Resolved, more candor and pragmatism

December 29, 2013 

Looking ahead to Macon’s coming year from this citizen’s vantage point, prospects on some horizons seem cloudy. Hopeful developments like consolidation are threatened by poverty, dysfunctional families, the unemployability of many public school graduates and dropouts, and crime rates ranking Macon among the worst 1 percent of U.S. cities. If our leaders display candor and act sensibly, though, prospects are hardly hopeless.

Consider New York’s experience. Its leadership was in denial about its own horrendous crime rate when Rudy Giuliani became mayor and declared that New York couldn’t remain a mecca of finance, tourism and civilization with such crime. Working closely together, Giuliani and New York’s police came up with novel, pragmatic strategies, like targeting petty crime and adding preventive stop-and-frisk policies. New York then went from worst to best in crime rates among big cities.

To act effectively, though, Giuliani first had to acknowledge trouble.

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert took a different approach to another kind of civic trouble when he failed to mention to the Urban Development Authority and Kirby Godsey’s development team that toxins contaminate large parts of a city-owned Riverside Drive site. Godsey proposed developing that site with a boutique hotel, condos and class A medical space, but human habitation of much of the site is prohibited by agreements Reichert quietly signed.

I asked Reichert why he omitted mention of what he was legally obliged to disclose. He responded that his was only a “technical” omission -- that “everybody” knew about the contamination and restrictions already. (Godsey credibly denies knowing.) Reichert suggested that it’s bad to discuss negatives, as that might accentuate them. Reichert’s preferred fix now is, with some legal magic, to “shrink” on paper the boundaries defining danger zones.

It matters little whether Reichert’s apparent disingenuousness traces from culture, character or something else. It doesn’t work. By contrast, when Sen. David Lucas heard about the contamination, he jumped in to explore the scope and depth of the problem, and how genuinely to clean up the site for development. Had a straight-shooter been in charge initially, Godsey’s project might have been salvageable.

Untrustworthy leadership mars Macon.

Consider other examples. Macon’s Economic Opportunity Council evades discussion of its finances. EOC Executive Director Sarita Hill and EOC President Lonnie Miley wrote a defensive Dec. 12 op-ed objecting to my earlier suggestion that the EOC improve its effectiveness in reaching the very neediest among us. In their op-ed, Hill and Miley wrote that they’d “answer all (Oedel’s) questions about how Macon-Bibb County EOC continues to break the cycle of poverty.”

I immediately accepted their offer. At first, Hill agreed to meet Dec. 18, but then she made herself scarce that day and every day after. She and Miley both failed to return my many phone calls. Maybe they had second thoughts after hearing that I’d like to go over EOC’s financial statements to explore in detail how EOC’s millions of public dollars annually are being employed to help break Macon’s cycle of poverty.

Unfortunately, those aren’t the only examples of sketchy, unreliable Macon leadership. For instance, former school Superintendent Romain Dallemand pretended to be channeling a miracle. Luckily, Dallemand is now selling miracles elsewhere. The Promise Neighborhood gang remains, though, still anxiously concealing the backstory of its outrageous lease until the truth is inexorably extracted.

But other local leadership rings true. Former county Commissioner Albert Billingslea, former mayors George Israel and Jim Marshall and outgoing commission Chairman Sam Hart all braved crossing the racial divide, building trust.

After Macon’s water system was exposed as deficient by 1994’s flood, Frank Amerson wrestled the system toward excellence.

Bill Underwood stumbled upon a financial hole when he assumed Mercer’s presidency, but then opened the books and is working it out.

Interim school Superintendent Steve Smith is succeeding not by jettisoning Dallemand’s initiatives but by supporting our teachers while gracefully accepting that we must work with the students and parents that God gave us.

Candor and pragmatism aren’t miraculous. Let’s hope Reichert, Hill, Miley, the Promise gang and our other leaders resolve to model those achievable traits next year.

David Oedel teaches at Mercer law school.

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