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EDITORIAL: Communicating with citizens works better

EDITORIAL: Communicating with citizens works better

Failing to share information often backfires
EDITORIAL: Communicating with citizens works better
Sidewalks at the corner of Ardsley and Rugby roads in Schenectady are pictured on Jan. 2.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

If there’s a lesson for government officials to learn from the Schenectady sidewalk fiasco — besides not rushing into a program without having all the details worked out — it’s that the best way to serve your constituents effectively is by communicating with them honestly and regularly.

Government would do so much better, be so much more effective, and be far more trusted and far less despised, if the people in charge were just up front and honest about what they were doing.

In the case of Schenectady’s sidewalk program — in which residents of neighborhoods can opt in on a payment plan to replace and repair their sidewalks —  residents of Ardsley Road suffered sticker shock when costs came in double than they were told. 

Neighbors used the city’s original estimates to drum up neighborhood support for the program, only to learn later what the real costs would be.

They felt duped. Yet city officials offered them no satisfactory explanations for the higher costs.

Now residents of DeCamp Avenue are experiencing the same cost issues, complete with the same dearth of communication from city officials.

City Engineer Chris Wallin told city officials earlier this month that he didn’t realize he could reach out to residents, and he asked for guidance. But if he didn’t feel comfortable sharing information, Councilman John Polimeni, who’s shepherding the sidewalk project, certainly should have when neighborhood residents began demanding answers.

Some residents say they’re still not satisfied that they’ve gotten all the information to which they’re entitled.

Now, because of the cost overruns and the bad publicity associated with the residents’ complaints, a potentially worthwhile program is threatened even before city officials can work the bugs out of it. 

There’s a lesson to be learned from this and other failures to communicate.

Look at the letters to the editor we’re still getting over the placement of the old Boy Scout Statue of Liberty statue. Sure, a lot of people wouldn’t have liked the new location no matter what. But the vitriol might have been less if Mayor Gary McCarthy had kept citizens in the loop during the search process and provided justification along the way.

This isn’t just a Schenectady problem, of course. All governments keep their citizens in the dark. It’s a natural defense mechanism.

But mistakes are forgivable. Secrets aren’t.

It’s better for public officials to take the criticism during the process than have to explain matters after it’s all gone to hell.

And how often have problems been ironed out when officials were forced to address concerns raised by residents?

Communication not only improves relations between government and citizens, it also often results in better government.

And shouldn’t that be everyone’s goal?

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