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Agreeing to Disagree, How Local Leaders Lead

 | Published on 1/1/2022

When the street department announced it would put a four-way stop just around the corner from Dari-Licious at Oak and Market streets, a Facebook acquaintance lamented that he’d not attended city meetings. He wasn’t enthused about the change to traffic there. When the county divided over wind farms, those who opposed them attended more meetings and made their voices louder than supporters. Whether it’s traffic flow or how we’ll power our community, local politics affect our daily lives far more than national politics does. Speaking up and trusting our leaders to find working compromises matters. 

Our mayor, council people, commissioners, school boards, clerk, judges, among others, “make the decisions that educate our children, police our streets, assist our businesses, handle medical emergencies, put out fires, remove garbage, operate our courts and jails, handle foster care, serve our seniors, create space for recreation, and any number of social services we take for granted- until they go awry or go away,” wrote Harold Dean Trulear about the value of local elected leaders in a PRISM magazine column. Trulear urged readers to “pay more attention to the supporting cast than the celebrities.” 

Yet fewer of us vote in local elections, read up on local decisions, or connect with our local leaders, even though we have strong and diverse opinions about our community. We grieve the concentration of grocery stores on one side of town, object to more dollar stores, and stew as we wait for trains to clear city tracks. On social media, we trade tips about which landlords to avoid and hunt for reliable daycare. We wonder if our county will have public transportation to the new county building.  Meanwhile Councilman Mike Reidy noted in November that almost no one attends city council meetings. A few of us tune into Mayor Barton’s podcast or WBAA’s “Ask the Mayor.” Some of us navigate to the Montgomery County Facebook page to follow Tom Klein’s updates in the county. 

We elect representatives to listen to our will and construct the policies that are best for us. We trust them to put the unum into E Pluribus Unum, to make “out of many, one.” In other words, to create a workable unity to ensure the community thrives in the present and for the future. 

We trust that when they sit down together, they treat one another civilly, thus taking the civic part of their duty seriously. We trust that they hash out the emails, conversations, and concerns we citizens bring to them. Most of them work at being available to listen and respond to constituents.  Imagine then, how our council people, mayor and other elected officials have to synthesize all that they hear and take conscientious actions.

Their challenge became clear at November’s “Running for Office” event when members of 4H’s high school leadership team guided attendees through an exercise meant to show just how hard it can be to agree to disagree. The 4H leaders demonstrated how every person, even those who might closely affiliate with one another, have unique perspectives.

To demonstrate, the young people handed participants five recipe cards and asked them to write Agree, Mildly Agree, Neutral, Mildly Disagree, Disagree on the cards. They instructed participants not to debate but to hold up one of the cards after they read statements about local concerns which have generated discussion in our community. Position statements included topics such as universal, free preschool, voting IDs, broadband access, wind farms, and affordable housing. After holding up cards, the student leaders asked for a few voices to explain their (dis)agreement. Remember this is not a debate, they reminded us. 

When responding to the statement about free public preschool, council people with different party affiliations noted preschool is good, but that “free” was their red flag. The funds have to come from somewhere. The question is how much and in what way we’d fund preschool.

Regarding wind power in the county, Former Councilman Aaron Morgan stated that he personally didn’t oppose them but more people who were opposed made their voices heard. He felt compelled to represent their will, not his own.  When it came to affordable housing, most people agreed we needed more, but affordable for a retiree differs from what is affordable for single parents, lawyers, or a disabled person.

All of this reinforced what Mayor Barton said about local elected officials. Whichever their party- Republican, Independent, Democrat or other- they are on the same team: Montgomery County. Winning teams are built on having players with different perspectives, discernment, and skills, who round each other out.