South Carolina’s capital city has been awash the past few days with controversy over a recent proposal passed by City Council to address what many refer to as the city’s increasingly visible “homeless problem.” Voices raging from all sectors of the community, from the small business owners on Main St to lawyers to bed and breakfast owners to homeless rights advocates to city council members, are so numerous and heated that it’s hard not to get swept up in the debate. Not even just the national media has picked this up — but so has local press in Detroit and elsewhere.
We’ve learned a lot about Columbia and local government in the midst of all this turmoil, and not just that homelessness is a big problem here. While I can’t offer any advice on how to help either the homeless or the businesses who are hurting because of crimes by the homeless, I can point out a deeper lesson we can all take away from this: the importance of communication between local government and its citizens.
First, let’s go back a bit. The date was August 13, 2013. The time: 8:30pm. The place: Eau Claire Print Building, 3907 Ensor Ave, Columbia, SC. The sound of singing locusts settled over the evening like a delicately crocheted quilt. Your trusty Voterheads correspondent (i.e. me) was just one of hundreds in the room, all of us eager, frustrated, and packed like civic-minded sardines in the too-tiny council meeting can. It had been two and a half hours since the meeting had started and we were still hearing the speakers for the first item. It wouldn’t be until after 10 o’clock that the council would move on to the “Discussion of Homelessness,” and like many of us average Voterheads out there, I had personal and family obligations that meant I couldn’t stick around until two in the morning for the whole meeting.
While I unwaveringly applaud all the citizens who came out and signed up to the speaker list to speak their mind about our local government and to listen to the debate, let’s get real: Most of us don’t have the time (or frankly the energy) to participate in eight hour council meetings. We need a change in how citizens and local government interact, so that average people can voice their opinions and know that they’re heard, and council members can hear these concerns and convey what’s happening in the meeting in a timely, transparent manner.
So when City Council finally got around to the Homeless Discussion and vote, what did they actually pass? The communication with the public about this hasn’t been very clear or timely. The vote happened at almost 3am the morning after the meeting began, so only the most hard-core among us were still standing — and sadly this didn’t include me or anyone from the press as far as I know. Various local media outlets have tried giving us the concrete facts about what took place and what steps were passed to address the homeless problem. Eva Moore with the Free Times has given the clearest explanation yet, but the draft minutes from the council meeting are still unavailable almost two weeks later. The bottom line: We shouldn’t have to rely on journalists to piece together and inform us about something we’re all invested in as a community. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a platform to make communication between city council and city residents easy? Well, if you’re reading this blog, you probably know that such a platform exists — Voterheads.
Don’t forget to log-in to Voterheads.com next week before the Sept 3 City Council meeting to vote and comment on this issue. Let’s get some real dialogue and clear communication going between council and citizens so that we can all help make Columbia “a world-class city.”