10/12/11: Leadership in Norfolk – absent again

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

ANY CHANCE to reform the redistricting process in Norfolk is dead — at least for now.

The Norfolk City Council set aside three hours of its retreat last month to discuss redistricting. The retreat was held in Smithfield, during the workweek, making it virtually impossible for most citizens to attend. And the retreat was neither broadcast nor recorded, making it virtually impossible to know exactly what was said.

That there has been nothing reported about the redistricting session gives us a clue as to how much attention was paid to the topic. I am told that the discussion was really not much of a discussion at all, that there was no will to reconsider the plan adopted earlier this year.

I am told that Councilman Paul Riddick, who put forth his own redistricting plan, was not in attendance.

So after a few minutes and a few questions, the subject was put to rest.

Ten years from now, Norfolk will undergo redistricting again. And 10 years from now, Norfolk will be grappling with the same issues that it faced this year — and 10 years ago and 10 years before that.

Rather than starting the ball rolling toward the future, Norfolk’s elected representatives cling to the past. Instead of looking forward, Norfolk looks back.

Perhaps now you understand why I rarely refer to elected representatives as leaders. Being a leader requires certain skills and talents, among them vision and courage. “Leadership is action, not position,” broadcasting pioneer Donald H. McGannon said. Simply getting the most votes does not make one a leader.

Leadership was on display in Suffolk as officials there undertook their redistricting. One of the best things that can be done in redistricting is to ignore incumbent protection. Suffolk did that, while making compact and contiguous districts of equal population priorities.

Suffolk Mayor Linda Johnson called the decision “one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to do.” Even so, the council members said if they had the chance to do things over again, they would take more time and gather more public comment.

For whatever reason, Norfolk officials rushed to adopt a redistricting plan. And even though the door is open for them to change the process — earlier I laid out a two-year timetable — it seems that most of the current members of the council have decided to slam it shut.

Ultimately, though, the responsibility lies with us, the voters. We are the ones who go — or don’t go — to the polls and elect our representatives. Albert Einstein is credited with defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That’s what we do every time we re-elect representatives who fail to listen to us.

We have to be willing to hold our elected representatives accountable . In order to do so, we have to find some time — in an already overscheduled environment — to keep ourselves abreast of the issues that affect us every day. I suggest to you that our ability to choose our representatives — the very core of redistricting — rather than their choosing us is one of the most important issues that affect us. Living with those decisions for 10 years at a time makes it so.

And we must remember. Elected officials count on voters’ short memories. When local elections roll around next year, we must remember who demonstrated leadership, who listened to the people they were elected to represent.

And who didn’t.