Hard Candy: A Letter to City Council

Well, elections are over and I, for one, feel like celebrating. When campaign season opened (yes, it’s a season, much like deer or tourist), I had a front-row view of the gritty nastiness that, more and more, epitomizes Gulfport politics. Things always get a tad intense come elections, and this year proved no exception. Those of us who attend or watch council meetings on a regular basis know that, during elections, many folks campaigning see the public session of the meetings as their chance to grab some free airtime. Some use it to express ideas while others used it to play dirty, but they all used it mercilessly.
Thankfully, stolen signs and nasty allegations are fading to a distant, chilly memory, and the new council can now get on with the business of running the city. I don’t envy their task; a new council member must quickly learn about laws, policies, and a host of other information. Add to that the firing-squad approach some folks embrace when addressing council at meetings and a new official can get overwhelmed rather easily. They go from having all the answers on the campaign trail to realizing how little they really know on the dais in a matter of weeks.
I’m not certain what this new council is going to look like. I heard some pretty interesting things from the candidates over the last few months and I wonder how those fresh ideas will stand up once the people behind them sit on the other side of the dais for a while. Ideas and allegiances have a curious way of changing once the supervisor of elections tallies the votes and the city clerk swears or affirms the new members into office. I do believe that most, if not all, of the council members believe that they want to do what is best for Gulfport.
A word of caution to those council members, though: while most people could get overwhelmed by the enormity of what they do not know and need to learn, a few of you might make the mistake of thinking you have achieved a godlike status and know what you need to know. You might start to think that since the voters chose you, you must be special in some way.
That could not be farther from the truth.
Sometimes, council member, what you think is best for Gulfport simply isn’t what the people who voted you in want. It may be tempting to do what you think is best, but never, ever forget that it is not your place to assume you know what your constituents want. It is your place to represent them, not parent them. You are not up there, acting alone, and you are not a better person today than you were before you took the oath of office.
Do not forget who put you in office: the voters. If they were smart enough to vote for you, they are smart enough to know what they want. I implore you never to second-guess them or condescend to them, and I beseech you to remember that just because that dais sits higher than the voters who watch you, you are not above them.
The same holds true for city employees. The moment you think you know better than your city manager or chief of police or head of the marina, please remember this: these people devote their lives to this city. You are giving two years, and you’re only a few days in at this point. Your staff went to school for this; they spend a minimum of 40 hours a week looking after your voters. You know –or you should try to know —what your voters want. Try and have a little faith in your staff for some of the other stuff. I’m not suggesting your shouldn’t research the issues; I’m suggesting that a kindly treated city staff can make your job a lot easier and help you get what you want.
Finally, council member, please don’t assume that those who speak the loudest speak for the majority. We have folks who come to every meeting and, while I applaud participative government—indeed, that’s how government works best—please don’t forget the rest of the voters. While the city is certainly blessed with seven magnificent men and women who attend faithfully and have time to formulate opinions on every issue, it also has 12,520 other people, some of whom may have jobs that prevent them from attending council meetings. Others may trust you to represent their needs and not feel compelled to attend every meeting. Even though they may not stand before you on Tuesday nights, that silent majority are your charges, too. Even if a dozen voters gave you your win, and even if they didn’t vote for you at all, please remember that all the residents count on you. The squeaky wheel gets the most grease, but the other three wheels are crucial, too.
Finally, council member, consider this: your potential to fail your city is enormous.
Florida history is littered with politicians who did just that when they forgot who put them in office. Your city is too small to endure much failure, and it will test you every day for the next two years. I do not envy you, but I do hold you accountable.
More importantly, so does a small city by the bay.
Contact Cathy Salustri at Cathy@TheGabber.com.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.