Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A Thorn Among the Roses

Of all the traits we need to cultivate, empathy is the toughest. That’s when somebody’s crying but someone else is tasting tears. Most of us don’t taste anyone’s tears but our own. And we wonder why our souls dry up.”

- Phillip Gulley – “Front Porch Tales”

The City Commissioners met this morning in a study session to discuss Steve Commons’ proposal to eliminate the taxi subsidy that a large number of Emporia’s senior citizens, most of whom are handicapped and living on fixed incomes, have come to depend on for transportation to get groceries, meet doctor’s appointments, and so forth. In addition to the seniors there are others who’ve come to depend on this service, including the handicapped and folks living on the good graces of social welfare. It’s a good and necessary program.

I think that when the city began looking at the program the feeling might have been that a three dollar per ride subsidy wasn’t that much for folks to give up. To most of us, three bucks doesn’t seem to be much at all. I think that, and the prospect of saving the city forty to fifty thousand dollars a year had them absolutely salivating.

Last night’s Gazette should have given them warning. There were four or five letters to the editor, including the one I sent this past Sunday, telling the Commission to back off.

Well, the firestorm continued this morning.

I got to the meeting room at about 8:30. By that time about thirty or so angry constituents had gathered, primed and ready for a fight. The overwhelming majority of them were elderly. Many came leaning on walkers. Some carried oxygen bottles. Some wheezed. At about 8:45 a woman wearing a purple outfit came up the aisle. When she stopped next to me I told her she could have my place. She caught her breath after a few minutes and thanked me. “Are you alright?” I asked. “I am now,” she responded as I helped her get seated. “I have some heart problems and I can’t breathe as well as I used to.”

By about 8:55 it was standing room only. While folks talked, I sat quietly, lost in my thoughts. “You’re pretty fortunate, Phil. You walk two or three hours a day. You’re in good shape. You get a good pension. You’re even collecting social security.” Yet, as much as I realize how fortunate I am, I couldn’t get past the overwhelming sense I was a thorn among the roses. The silver-haired, wheezing, the infirm, the dull of thought, the gravelly-voiced welfare recipients gathering to make their appeal to the city’s leaders were, in heaven’s mind, the flowers that needed tending.

Mayor Jim Kessler called the meeting to order promptly at nine. And, no sooner than he had, the fur began to fly. I was amazed at how much life could still be left in the seemingly lifeless and unimportant. One after another they tore into the commissioners with a fury tempered only by age and wisdom. If they’d been younger I think there might have been a real slobber knocker. It was an absolutely perfect display. An old man in the first row spoke of the operations he’d undergone and the conditions he endures day to day. He spoke of how valuable the three dollar subsidy was to him. A woman dressed in a yellow pant-suit brought a two-hundred signature petition. As the oxygen bottle draped around her neck heaved right to left she expressed, through labored breathing, her displeasure with the City Manager. Another woman, who appeared to be in her late seventies, was more polite. “Please,” she pleaded. “We need this service. Don’t do away with it.”

The commissioners listened politely, appearing to me to be more like Tweedle-Dum, Tweedle-Dee and friends than public servants. They’d tested the political wind and now they were reaping the whirlwind. The only exception to this, it seemed to me, was Bobby Agler.

The more I listened the more the sense of righteous indignation came over me. How could this be happening? Why would a city leader think that curtailing a valuable service to some of Emporia’s most vulnerable citizens was a good idea? Why would he think that it could, or should, pass city muster. I decided I needed to say something. At about 9:40 I launched in.

“I’m not a user of either the cab or bus service here in town, but I think that the idea of eliminating the taxi subsidy is a bad one. In fact, I’m really bothered that the proposal made it this far. It shows me that there’s an alarming lack of sensitivity on the part of the commission and the city manager to the needs of its most vulnerable citizens.”

Then, the inspiration hit me. There were some lessons I’d learned in the corporate world years ago. It was like a bolt out of the blue. How do the theologians put it? “God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.” I looked directly at Julia Johnson, the vice mayor. “When I was in the corporate world I learned there were four ways to do things. The wrong thing can be done the wrong way. The wrong thing can be done the right way. The right thing can be done the wrong way. And, the right thing can be done the right way. This, to me, is an example of doing the right thing the wrong way. We all want to save the city money, but this is a really bad idea. The best example I can think of to illustrate would be this. The neighborhood I live in has a slum-lord problem, with landlords taking advantage of people who can’t afford to buy a home. One solution might be to exercise some creative use of the doctrine of eminent domain. Then, to provide revenue for city programs we could retrofit the houses and develop a red light district.”

The laughter erupted. I’d made my point. But, I wasn’t done. “An idea like that might be acceptable for Amsterdam, but it’s not for Emporia. It would be trying to do the right thing the wrong way.” The room got silent for second. Then I delivered the blow I’d really wanted to land. “You’re public servants! Your job is to serve the people, and this proposal tells me that you lack sensitivity to the needs of the people living here. This is a really bad idea and the fact that this proposal got this far tells me that it’s a lesson you need to learn.”

When we were all done, the commissioners seemed inclined to protect the program. Good! But, I’m still troubled by the notion that this city’s leaders could even think that saving fifty thousand dollars on the backs of needy people was something that should be pursued.

When all was said and done I could see that at least one commissioner was painfully irritated by what I’d said. She was stung by the criticism. “We’re trying to do the best we can and we are sensitive.” I suppose that’s a step in the right direction.

By about 10:30 the army of the infirm was making it’s way out of the meeting room. We’d made our point.

The campaign for city commission hasn’t begun in earnest yet, but I think I've found at least one constituency - the silver haired, infirm, wheezing roses of Emporia, Kansas. When the campaign does begin I’m going to irritate the commissioners even more. I fully intend to play in the political gravel with these folks. I may not win, but, by God, they’ll know that when they try to pluck the petals from the roses, they’re also gonna’ get stuck by thorns like me.

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Emporia, Kansas


Dr Mac said...

Phil, it is good that you have the interest and fortitude to keep posted on the pursuits of the commissioners and take the time to attend these meetings. Like you, I am not a user of the subsidy taxi or bus service, PRAISE THE LORD, however I align my curiosity with you in questioning the facilities of the City Manager to launch debate on this issue. It is rather obvious that he does not write down his list of priorities and discuss them with anyone sane in his office. Years ago when I was in executive management I encouraged my secretary to tap me on the shoulder and wake me before I promoted stupid action like this one. This type of thinking causes the remarks of Thomas Frank, Pat Kelly’s friend, to become a tad more realistic. That old boy must have had a better eye for reading the future for this town than many of the ‘pillars of the city’ care to recognize.

I hope that you continue to pursue a place on

prying1 said...

Excellent post Phil - Too often city leaders try to cut the wrong corners. I'm sure there is waste in the city government that would cut more than the $50,000.

If it is like most towns in this great and wonderful land the waste is there...

Ma Titwonky said...

And what a beautiful "thorn" you are! Kudos on adding your voice to those who need this service. And humongous kudos for being willing to stay and fight some more!