Open dialogue

Open dialogue

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This week, Mayor Nutter met with local LGBT business owners, seeking their input on city budget priorities as part of a series of stakeholder meetings. These meetings, which have occurred over the past few weeks, are part of an effort to open dialogue and facilitate two-way communication between the mayor and his constituents. Many of the meetings, like this one, have not had prior publicity and weren’t open to the public.

For others, like the civic-engagement forums that started this week, the public is invited and encouraged to attend. At the meetings, journalists will question city officials on the financial state of the city, then citizens will work in small groups to discuss priorities and tradeoffs they are willing to make. The goal is to move from discussion to action and provide tangible, workable solutions to the budget crisis.

The output from these meetings will be used in the formulation of the 2010 budget.

That the city is hosting public and targeted meetings to ask for input reflects a new way of doing business in City Hall.

To be sure, this wasn’t what Nutter was thinking of when he campaigned on the slogan, “A New Way, A New Day.” But, to his credit, Nutter apologized for not including the public in the initial budget cuts in November, and the recent outreach demonstrates an openness to input and feedback. Government for the people, by the people, if you will.

At the same time, the city’s leader needs to be able to make tough choices; to consider the variables, weigh the options and make a decision.

And the city is facing tough choices. Frankly, the budget numbers seem intangible. A total shortfall of $2 billion in the next five years. Additionally, unemployment is above the national average. Real-estate transfer-tax income is down and projected to continue to decline.

Recently, the mayor asked his department heads to develop budget scenarios with 10-, 20- and 30-percent reductions. The results aren’t pretty. They include fire-departments layoffs and library closings — two proposed cuts that drew public ire last year under the first budget cuts.

In keeping with last week’s editorial that “we’re all in this together,” it is important to think about what the essentials are, what the community needs vs. what it wants, what it should expect government to do and what is unreasonable, both on a community level and as individual citizens.

And while the conversations at the local and national levels differ in tone (the city is not planning massive spending to stimulate the local economy), there are overlaps.

Again, the community will need to consider what its priorities are, what it can do to contribute and what will provide the greatest benefit.

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