Election season is in full swing. Some local elections were decided on Aug. 23, and others will be settled on Nov. 8. While voters have been clamoring for change, in many municipal elections they stuck with the incumbents. It’s a tad baffling, really.
For those incumbents who are already re-elected, we will be holding you accountable for better decisions this term. For those still in their races, we want answers for your records and promises that you won’t, if re-elected, ignore engaged citizens who show up to meetings or write you letters. We want assurance you won’t sell out your communities again.
I’m old enough to believe individuals don’t really change. But group dynamics can change with the replacement of one or more overly influential individuals. Sometimes an entire commission or council has a collective personality or tendency driven by one or more members — for example, to approve nearly every development proposal without careful scrutiny of the project, or to let every meeting devolve into personal attacks on each other (ahem …). When those individuals retire or get voted out, can the remaining incumbents do better? Can new public officials joining the group shift the personality enough to change outcomes?
I don’t believe individuals really change, but, as an educator, I clutch the thread of hope that people of any age are teachable. Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, when DeLand City Commissioner Kevin Reid read my mind a couple of weeks ago and totally redirected the conversation in the Sept. 7 DeLand City Commission meeting. He was responding to a proposal by the Public Works Department to spend a half million dollars installing irrigation for sod, crape myrtles, and coonties in medians for new “gateways” to DeLand. These sodded medians would also need to be mowed by six new full-time landscape crew members.
Commissioner Reid said something like, “I’m not a big fan of crape myrtles, but why can’t we just do medians of native wildflowers? They wouldn’t need to be irrigated or mowed, so we could have beautiful gateways and not spend a whole lot of money.”
Who knew accountant Reid, often a protector of taxpayer dollars, could be a wildflower advocate, too? What could have been just one goofy idea that fell flat became a surprising turn of leadership because, then, Commissioner Charles Paiva became the “first follower” to validate the idea, then Commissioner Jessica Davis, and eventually Commissioner Chris Cloudman, after a cautious glance to the left, jumped on board reiterating the same notion in synonyms.
Let’s go native! Paiva embraced Reid’s idea by suggesting DeLand’s goal to rebrand as the “Athens of Florida” should come with a statement that we have future-looking values here — values like not wasting money or water and protecting our natural resources and biodiversity. Maybe there’s hope…? We’ll see if this is the new norm or if it was a one-off.
I want to believe that change can happen with or without new faces on the dais. I want to believe that the people we put on the dais are not just puppets of their campaign donors or other overly powerful members of their communities.
As our communities grow and demographics shift, those who have been given the opportunity and responsibility to make decisions for the good of all of us (not just local, wealthy owners of large tracts of land and out-of-town developers) need to “read the room.” They need to remember that they are there to serve their entire communities now, and also to make decisions that will have long-term impacts on future generations.
Imagine having elected officials, whether incumbents or rookies, who listen to their constituents.
— Dr. Wendy B. Anderson is a professor of environmental science and studies at Stetson University, and chair of the Volusia Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors. She has been promoting sustainable community development for 20 years.