Strother Martin’s character in the movie, “Cool Hand Luke” said it best: “What we have here is failure to communicate.”
In auto mechanics and medicine, the first object of diagnostics is to distinguish symptom from cause.
For the past couple of weeks, local politics has been consumed by a particularly acrimonious conflict between the Lowndes County and Columbus officials over the use of the city-owned landfill.
There have been charges and counter-charges. Each party has called the other party a bunch of liars.
Ultimately, the dispute will add roughly $25,000 to a drainage project. The episode is an embarrassment for the community.
As mean-spirited as the incident has become, it is important to understand that this is just the symptom.
The relations between city and county officials seem to be deteriorating before our eyes — to the point that they won’t even talk to each other.
The cause is, indeed, a failure — more accurately, a refusal — to communicate.
All that would have been necessary to defuse this matter before it escalated into the embarrassing episode it has become was something as simple as an apology or a five-minute phone call.
If Harry Sanders would have been honorable enough to apologize for referring to the Columbus City Council as “SOBs,” it is likely the issue would have ended then and there.
If county administrator Ralph Billingsley would have been responsible enough to call the mayor to make even a token effort to resolve the issue amicably, the county could have saved $25,000.
What we do know is that Billingsley made no effort at all to resolve the problem.
Some details of the sorry affair are offered for context.
Sanders referred to the council as “SOBs” in the Sept. 26 edition of the weekly newspaper, The Real Story. Six days later, Billingsley appeared at the council’s regular meeting to ask for a waiver of fees for using the city’s landfill as in-kind service for a drainage project and in the future for the debris from the demolition of the old health department on Military Road. After Ward 5 councilman Kabir Karriem voiced his displeasure over Sanders’ ‘SOB’ comment, the council voted to table the request.
In many respects, what has happened since gives the impression county officials were eager to exploit the council’s reticence. Two days later, the county began work on the project — without determining if the city would allow the county to use its landfill. County officials said someone at the city landfill denied the county access.
County Purchasing Agent Terry Thompson told The Dispatch that someone at the city said the county couldn’t use the landfill because the county had no charge account with the city. That’s laughable, city officials insist. They say the county has had an account with the city for as long as anyone can remember. In fact, according to the records, the county made a payment on its account with the city as recently as Sept. 6, a fact that Thompson, given her position with the county, certainly must have known.
Contacted by The Dispatch about the matter on Wednesday, Billingsley gave this account of his discussion with Thompson: “Terry Thompson had just got off the phone with (someone at the landfill) and they said we could not charge to dump. She had just talked to them. They said there was no way we could dump. We had to find an alternate route. They (the city council) had tabled our request. We knew they weren’t going to work with us. This was happening in real time — we had trucks lined up. We had to do some damage control.”
Damage control? What would have been wrong at that point with calling City Hall to straighten out the obvious error?
Asked if he made any calls in an effort to resolve the dispute, Billingsley admitted he did not.
That is not to say the city officials might not have responded in a spiteful, petty manner. All we do know is that they were never given that opportunity.
From the moment the council tabled the waiver request, it appeared obvious the county sought to magnify the disagreement rather than disarm it.
Councilman Karriem said today the city is investigating the incident, but it’s clear the shoulders the blame. All that might have been required was a timely apology or phone call.
For the good of the community, this sort of infighting has to end.
How do we make our elected officials act responsibly?
As Carr, the floor walker in “Cool Hand Luke,” would say: “Any man don’t keep order gets a night in the box!”
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.