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Berea Elections: Smile When You Say That, Partner

10.30.10 05:33 PM – Andy McDonald
When the results of the Berea City Council election came in Tuesday night, you can imagine that a few rejected incumbents must have been shaking their heads.

How could Troy VanWinkle and Ronnie Terrill be dropped by voters when just two years earlier they finished near the top of the pile?

From a policy standpoint, I think both Terrill and VanWinkle were on the cutting edge as far as the spending issue. Two years before anybody was complaining about spending and tax increases, they were running on promises to cut back budget allocations and impose tax cuts. Both tried to make good on those promises but were out-voted. So why, in a year that voter anger reached a fever pitch, did they lose?

The trouble in voicing their dissent may have been that they often struck a very cantankerous chord; they didn’t just express reservations about city spending policy, they sometimes appeared to be very belligerent in doing so. That’s a problem in Berea, where being nice matters.

When they questioned certain city or council procedures, there was an element of accusation in it. When they disagreed with city officials, such as in the case of tourism spending, there was a sharpness to it, not a conciliatory and respectful “I’m-on-your-side-but-we’re-spending-too-much-damned-money” kind of tone. And when votes didn’t go VanWinkle’s way, he seemed to take it personally. He got mad.

Mayoral challenger Mary Sue Issacs Eipert had a similar problem: How to raise objections to the mayor's policies without making it seem like a personal attack. The wheels came off when she questioned Connelly's integrity in a public forum. She ended up losing even though she articulated a coherent message and out-campaigned him.

Dissenters probably could have gotten away with that somewhere else, but not in Berea. Steve Connelly has been winning local elections for years, I think, on the strength of his reputation. He doesn’t make big promises; he doesn’t take out huge ads in the newspapers, or litter the city landscape with signs. Rather, his strength is in the fact that people know and trust him, even if they don’t always agree with him.

Townies may not be pleased that Connelly, in their view, is in the thrall of pointy-headed academic types at the college. But his personal integrity has never come into question. When he turned down a proposal that would have doubled his pay, he proved that, like Clifford Kerby before him, he is not in office to line his own pockets. Voters believe he’s honest, even when he's wrong.

In my view, Van Winkle and Terrill’s political troubles stemmed all the way back to when they questioned the procedures of the city’s Audit and Finance Committee. Not that they were wrong about open meetings law. In fact, they were right. The problem was the tone they took, which suggested that Mayor Connelly and Glenn Jennings could be up to no good. That, I think, had consequences. Both men are well thought of in the community. You can get away with suggesting they are wrong. You can’t get away with suggesting they may be up to dirty dealing.

This election was especially fascinating because it was stridently anti-government. On the state and national level, it seems a lot of people voted on the basis of their anger at and distrust of government. But that’s where some local candidates got things half right, but the more important half very wrong. You can run against government – Terrill and VanWinkle got that right – but on a local level, you can’t assume that anger and distrust extends to the specific people who are running government. You can be passionate; you just can’t make it personal.

I think the recent city council elections reveal a very interesting characteristic of city residents: Bereans like city council members that can get along. They don’t go for barroom brawls over municipal policy. That’s probably why Truman Fields was welcomed back as was Howard Baker. They were two establishment candidates elected in what was supposed to be an anti-establishment year. When you had a thundering herd of candidates who swore they were for "fiscal responsibility" voters picked the two guys who raised taxes.

With all due respect to Mr. Fields and Mr. Baker, they may well be the first candidates in American political history to be swept into office with a rallying cry of "Vote the Bums Back In!"

Why did this happen? Probably because they’ve proven they can play nice and row in the same direction as the rest of the council members.

Jerry Little, meanwhile, survived because he’s a dissenter who still fits that “nice” mold that our citizens seem to like. He can disagree, but he does so in a manner that’s not disagreeable.

In challenging conventional wisdom on tourism, taxation and spending, Terrill and VanWinkle were doing their jobs. City government needs dissent on council from time to time if it is to remain effective.

But I think one message prospective city council candidates should take away from the 2010 elections is that civility still matters. You can disagree with the mayor, city council members or staffers, but as they used to say in the Old West, smile when you say that, partner.


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