The relationship (or lack thereof) between the city of Fayetteville and Cumberland County is as legendary as it is pathetic. As we stress over our indelible moniker, FayetteNam, we pay little attention to the image we are creating and projecting countywide, statewide and even nationally.
Next month, Up & Coming Weekly will celebrate its 22nd year as this community’s weekly newspaper. During this time, we have maintained an up-close and personal relationship with the community. It was during this time that I had the privilege of serving six years on the Cumberland County Coliseum board when we built the $60 million complex. I was very proud of that appointment and accomplishment. At the same time, I was confused by the amount of controversy surrounding it – especially between the city and county.
I thought this obvious contempt for each other was temporary, a passing thing.
I was disappointed to realize the hostility between the two governing bodies was practically embedded in their DNA. That was nearly two decades ago. Fast forward to December 2017. Nothing has changed. If anything, the relationship and communications between the city and county have gotten worse.
I’m not a detective or historical analyst by any stretch of the imagination, but after the recent bullheaded standoff and debacle concerning the combined 911 call center, I decided to take a closer look and examine the last 22 years of working with both the city and county.
It is amazing that our community has accomplished anything over the last two decades considering the high levels of reluctant cooperation. At the same time, it makes me wonder how many achievements, opportunities and developments we have squandered over petty political and territorial issues. I have often written that good government is a result of good leadership. Competent elected officials are essential for long-term growth and prosperity because they have a vision and a plan.
Well, here are my findings after 22 years: Since 1996, Fayetteville has had six mayors and the Cumberland County chairman has changed every year. Elected leadership changes every two or four years, respectively. Despite the ongoing changes in elected city and county leadership, the undercurrent of distrust and hostility remains undeterred despite individual intentions, influence or qualifications. How can this be with so many different elected officials serving both the city and the county and instituting their influence and personality to promote positive progress and change?
Instead of looking for things that have changed, I started paying attention to things that didn’t change. The one thing I found that the city and county had in common in the category of things that didn’t change was the staff. Maybe, just maybe, over the years, department heads and staffers became too entitled and realized the constant turnover of elected officials gave them the inherent power to dictate policy and influence the operations (and attitudes) of both the city and the county. After all, the elected officials depend on important information the staff provides them, and once the elected officials decide, it is the staff that is charged with the execution of policy. In the end, it is the staff that dictates and controls the success or failure of a project.
This being the case, who benefits the most from city-county contention than the staffers? With these insiders protecting their turf for power and job security, they are the real benefactors of robbing the city and the county of the progress that comes from cooperation and teamwork.
Close examination shows that the constant elements over the decades of city and county government are the staff and department heads. Perhaps they have too much power and influence over what goes on with city hall and with the county commissioners. Well, you may ask: how did they get that much power? Perhaps it was by citizens electing unqualified career politicians who don’t have the intellect, knowledge or experience to be visionary leaders to positions of prominence.
Another indication this may be a problem is the amount of pushback and criticism directed at elected officials who press a staffer too hard for information or imply that the staffer needs to do his or her job.
I’ll conclude with this: everyone wants a better community. Everyone sees and appreciates the opportunities we have with economic development and some of the other major assets we have in Fayetteville and Cumberland County. We need to cooperate. There is no advantage or future for us if we do not get along with one another. The fact that this situation has existed for so long indicates there is a constant enabler that needs to be addressed. And, since we know it’s not the elected officials, we need to look elsewhere.
We have too much to lose if we don’t get to the bottom of this situation. And we have everything to gain if we do. We have a lot at stake in Fayetteville and Cumberland County, and we need to work together for positive outcomes. The time for protecting turf is over. All elected officials should start demonstrating tough love and start demanding that the staff do their jobs so elected officials can do theirs.
Thanks for reading the Up & Coming Weekly.