Leaders look to atone for mistakes

When York County Manager Jim Baker took a microphone last week and publicly apologized to an audience of neighbors standing before him, he made a key early gesture in what promises to be a difficult recovery act.

Baker accepted blame for not doing enough to inform the public about new rules proposed near the Rock Hill/York County Airport. He and other public officials pledge to make amends by holding more talks before decisions are made.

But the rifts won't be easy to heal.

After Baker's apology, 150 people shuffled around an auditorium, poring over maps and carrying on scattered, generally polite arguments with staffers posted around the room. Outside in the parking lot, opponents waged their own campaign to unite neighbors against the proposals.

A flier entitled "What the Government Officials are not telling you" listed 10 reasons the rules shouldn't be approved. The handout ended with the line: "Together we can stop this!"

"I don't think the politicians expected what they're getting from the people," said Mike Fitzgerald, general manager of Skytech, the airport's on-site service provider. "Maybe it's because the story is not being told properly."

Issues with communication

That comment has been made before.

Complaints surfaced two years ago, when the city of Rock Hill pursued a construction and debris landfill south of town. Rock Hill officials did not use the term "landfill" in describing the facility, instead calling it a recycling center in public hearings. The project is mired in a lawsuit involving the city and county.

Last year, criticism flared again when city leaders imposed a jaywalking ban in downtown. They cited pedestrian safety as the primary reason but later acknowledged the need to help a restaurant get a liquor license. The restaurant needed to meet distance requirements from a nearby church.

"Where we fail is, we assume people understand what we're trying to do," said Buddy Motz, chairman of the York County Council. "In fact, they don't. We get the message out one time, and just assume it will be accepted instead of following up. People have a natural inclination not to trust government anyway. So, you've got to try and be open and honest with anything you do."

Added Motz: "It's a matter of opening up a dialogue. Too many times, we don't do that."

People in the public relations business note a common mistake: Decision-makers create more trouble for themselves by trying to avoid confrontation rather than tackling disagreements in a proactive way."If you're delivering bad news to somebody, you're not going to seek them out and take them to dinner," said Mike Herman with The Catevo Group, a public relations firm in Raleigh, N.C. "You're going to find the most expeditious way to get it out. Is that the best way to handle it? No. But it's what happens."

More complicated this time

The airport dispute is more complex. At issue is a plan that would restrict development around the airport and require people buying homes to sign documents acknowledging they're in "nuisance zones." The rules are tied to plans to lengthen the runway by 1,000 feet to attract more corporate jets.

Neighbors fear more noise and lower property values.

Responding to complaints of a rush to judgment, officials point out that public meetings were held beginning in October. They acknowledge that while homeowners in the immediate vicinity were notified, dozens of others in the broader area didn't get written notice.

"We've heard the concerns," City Manager Carey Smith said recently. "We've taken a pause, and we're going to revisit the process and give people an opportunity to learn more about this."

Two community meetings were held last week. Three more are planned in April, including one Thursday night. The question is whether a rocky start will make it impossible for the two sides to reconcile.

"This has become a passion for me, and I am 100 percent against this happening to me, my friends, neighbors or anyone else," homeowner Scott Ball wrote in an e-mail to city and county officials last week. "I assure you that this is an emotional issue for many of us."

Some of the emotion can be avoided, says Judy Hoffman, author of the book "Keeping Cool on the Hot Seat: Dealing Effectively With the Media in Times of Crisis."

"If you approach it correctly, with advance notice and giving people a chance to express their concerns, it's much better than having confrontations at the 11th hour," Hoffman said. "They don't realize what they're doing is just exacerbating the whole situation. It usually backfires on people."

There is evidence that habits are changing. Before acting on a proposal to ban smoking in public places, the city and county want to hold joint public meetings -- and might invite other municipalities to join the conversation.

Said Baker: "We want to make sure we get perspectives from residents all over the county before staff makes a recommendation."