Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The merger debate that wasn’t


Just 75 days ago (seems longer, doesn't it?) we proposed, both for cost savings in these economic times and for better coordinated community marketing, that Sun Valley and Ketchum citizens have a conversation about the merits and disadvantages of some form of consolidation. This idea is hardly radical stuff. Tom Brokaw's op-ed in The New York Times last week on the need for local services consolidation, "Small-Town Big Spending," ends with the line, "If this is a reset, it's time to reorganize our state and local government structures for today's realities rather than cling to the sensibilities of the 20th century." We need go no further than Hailey to see a local example of productive services consolidation negotiations. It is an idea whose time has come.

In this particular case, however, the conversation went from talk and data comparison to acrimony and name-calling in no time, including nasty personal attacks on dialogue supporters (Benedict Arnold—really?). We tried to steer the debate back to civility by offering to those opposed an independent, third-party review of the legal and financial aspects of consolidation, and formation of a combined study team to examine those and the cultural issues around merger. We got no response, save more rancor and a discussion-chilling city resolution.

Hard feelings were not our objective. We need to take accountability for mistakes in how we framed this debate, particularly the petition approach, which made some people feel time pressured and threatened. We also could have proposed partial-services consolidation as a clear first step, as has been suggested by many supporters. This has been put forward many times in the past, with limited willingness on the part of decision makers to engage seriously, but it is a quieter way to start the process.

While we could have framed things more carefully, we were in no way prepared for the avalanche of willful misinformation and fear mongering that was unleashed before calm and rational discussion ever got started. This is not the time to catalog these misstatements or attribute them to individuals, but it is worth emphasizing that spreading misinformation by e-mail, whispers and meetings designed to inflame emotions, rather than engaging in balanced public debate, really doesn't serve the interests of the people.

With the well thoroughly poisoned, it is time to move on, at least for now. It is our strong and continuing belief that, at a minimum, some form of services consolidation is in the best interest of our voters and taxpayers. There is no good argument in our contiguous and tiny bergs to have duplicated fire, police, streets, water and sewer, and we hope the mayors in both towns will initiate serious negotiations on service consolidation, as many citizens continue to request. When Santa Clarita, Calif., was formed by amalgamating previous towns, savings of nearly 30 percent were achieved. There are some current conversations around fire consolidation, but honestly it doesn't look very promising at the moment.

Until the public demands these efficiencies, better community marketing effectiveness and public interest over self-interest from their elected officials, it won't happen. Until that day, Thomas Jefferson's comment seems apt: "The government you elect is the government you deserve."

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