I was interviewed earlier this year by a panel of community leaders representing a civic organization that I was interested in joining.
"If you could be mayor for a day, what would you do?" was one of the questions they asked. It took awhile for me to think of an answer, but the response I gave that day is the response I would give today if asked again.
I said I would like to lock all of the metro area's politicians in a room for 12 hours. With them would be a cross section of the city's top business and civic leaders. There would be no pagers, no cell phones and no interruptions. Their goal would be to agree on at least one thing Augusta must do to become a more prosperous city.
The group would be asked to develop an action plan detailing what must be done to achieve the goal. Then, before they could go home, they would be asked to sign an agreement pledging their support of the goal and the action plan.
My thinking is that the broad-based group would agree on an issue important to the community at large (rather than something that just benefits a particular political subdivision or special interest group), develop a coordinated implementation strategy (rather than one weakened by different groups pulling in different directions) and be compelled to make it a priority (instead of forgetting about it after the initial fanfare is gone).
Those who would not support the consensus, and you know they would exist, would not be allowed to stand in the way of the progress. Any that did should be identified as obstructionist and subject to public scorn. If they are elected officials, their unwillingness to cooperate should become the top issue during the next elections.
The goal would be met so quickly and with such efficiency that the city's leadership would be compelled to repeat the consensus-building process to tackle challenge No. 2 and so forth. Imagine the possibilities ...
OK, now back to reality. Back to the metro area that is politically, geographically and racially divided. Surely such a fantasy could never come true in a city such as this? Or could it? I saw something last month that gave me hope.
It was a half-day meeting billed as an economic summit by its organizer, the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. In attendance were most (unfortunately not all) state and local officials from Richmond and Columbia counties and a handful of the city's business leaders and community activists.
The exercise, though new to Augusta, has been practiced on a regular basis for years by more progressive cities such as Seattle and, closer to home, Columbus. The moderator told the assembly how regular retreats help leaders in other cities communicate more effectively, reach a consensus on important community issues and better coordinate their legislative and civic efforts.
Depending on your outlook, the economic summit was either productive or a waste of time. No votes were taken; everyone in attendance spoke rationally and reasonably; nobody pointed fingers or made pithy comments that could be turned into a quote or a sound bite. So as a reporter covering the event, nothing happened.
But as John Q. Public, the meeting was extremely worthwhile. I heard the leadership of this community acknowledge they don't communicate as well as they should. I heard them acknowledge the community has serious problems. I saw politicians from radically different backgrounds agree more than disagree about making Augusta into a more prosperous city.
In other words, I thought the meeting could be the start of something wonderful. Those in attendance said they wanted to have another, larger meeting in the future. So maybe my mayoral fantasy could someday come true.
Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org