Cook: 1,000-to-1 odds on the power of people

Cook: 1,000-to-1 odds on the power of people

March 8th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

I'd like to make three bets today with any bookie who's reading. And I'll lay 1,000-to-1 odds, because I'm betting on the back alley favorite, the bread and butter, the breadth and depth and glue of any good society.

Ordinary citizens.

I'd wager that parents in East Hamilton and Ooltewah -- if given the chance -- could figure out how to solve the zoning and over-crowding issues at their neighborhood schools.

I'd wager that residents in the Westside -- if given the chance -- could clearly imagine and articulate a vision for their community.

I'd wager that citizens -- if given the chance -- would vote in the person they want to replace Everett Fairchild or Bob Moon.

That's what we'd want, if we were in their shoes.

Last week, schools Superintendent Rick Smith, operating off orders from the Hamilton County School Board, unveiled new zoning plans that will affect the lives of hundreds of families.

It went over as quietly as a king at a tea party. Folks were outraged, stunned, silent, loud -- all the emotions and responses when things seem unfair.

Who made these decisions? What was the process?

On the Westside, it's the same song, second verse. Earlier this winter, Mayor Ron Littlefield (no one knows exactly when) initiated conversation with Atlanta-based Purpose Built Communities, inviting planners to explore ways to rebuild certain neighborhoods, such as Westside.

Yet Westside residents, or the City Council, weren't involved.

And when Board of Education member Everett Fairchild announced his retirement, the process of selecting his replacement remains solely in the hands of county commissioners, who -- watch this -- want to keep the interviews private.

Just like the process of installing David Norton as the late Judge Bob Moon's interim replacement.

"I feel like my hands are tied down. We feel like we're suffocating over here. Nobody is listening," Gloria Griffith, who's lived in the Westside neighborhood for decades, told me.

Now listen to Misty Butler, parent of a fourth-grader affected by the rezoning.

"You would think they would have said, 'OK, this is a big enough issue that we need to hear parents' thoughts, concerns and questions," she told Times Free Press reporter Kevin Hardy. "We were just told this is Plan A and there is no Plan B. It makes no sense."

Now listen to Ryan Ledford, speaking to Smith on the night the zoning plans were presented to the public.

"At the end of the day, I don't know how you're making your decisions," he told Smith.

Purpose Built Communities may be the best thing to happen to Chattanooga since bottled Coca-Cola, but the idea must originate from the people most affected.

The redrawing of school zone boundaries may be the most fair, just and least disruptive plan for East Hamilton and Ooltewah, but unless the parents (and kids) are intimately involved in the process, it will go down about as smoothly as Gold Bond in your Mayfield's.

Last August, the school board should have invited all parents involved to begin regular meetings to create the six best plans possible. If anyone's left in the dark, it should be the school board, not hundreds of families.

Half of the Chattanooga Housing Authority's budget that is directed toward the Westside should be in their hands. Begin participatory budgeting, which allows citizens to vote for and prioritize the funds that will affect them.

The basis of democracy lies in the autonomy of people. Elected leaders need to be as small as possible, not making Wizard-of-Oz-like decisions behind closed curtains.

So here's a good bet. The marches that Ledford has organized will continue. The signatures on his petition will grow like kudzu.

"I'm not going to lie down. Nobody else is either," he said.

Griffith and her neighbors will continue to retilt the scales of autonomy back toward the Westside, using many tactics at their disposal.

"We're going to resist in any way we can," she said.

And in the end, they'll win. You can't stop the power of committed people. It's the safest bet in the world.

Contact David Cook at davidcook@hushmail.com.