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The Power of “Kitchen Table and Street Corner Democracy”

Local Governments, Citizens, and Communities of Possibility

By Drew Finley (LFNC Fellow, Hendersonville)

October 18, 2019

When I sit down in the Police Department Roll Call Room at City Hall for the first meeting of the City of Hendersonville Book Club, I am a little nervous.

To my left is Police Chief Herbert Blake, who I have been told has just initiated a new departmental campaign called the STEP (Safe Traffic Enforcement Patrols) initiative designed to increase radar patrols and enforce traffic laws throughout the city on roads like Four Seasons Boulevard (a road where I may or may not have driven my car in excess of the posted speed limit in recent days).

To my right is Fire Chief Joe Vindigni, who at our most recent Council meeting accepted a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from the Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency in the amount of $1,252,324.20 (a sum of money that is so oddly precise that I for some reason come to wonder just exactly how that extra 20 cents will be allocated).

My primary supervisors—Utilities Director Lee Smith and City Engineer Brent Detwiler—sit at the table on the other side of the meeting area, across the chasm of the large room in chairs that feel like they are miles away from me and my baby-blue UNC School of Government journal that is filled with facts and information that most of the department heads in the room have probably already known for many years.

In the presence of the City’s leadership as a twenty-three-year-old recent college-graduate who has only been working in local government for a few weeks, I feel for a brief moment that I’m sticking out like a sore thumb and should just return to my office in the City Operations Center located roughly a quarter-mile from where I currently sit.

But once we start to dive into Peter Block’s captivating book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, my anxiety slowly begins to fade. I hear Finance Director John Buchanan affirm that our recent Council Conversations series is designed not to provide a platform for citizens to foist their problems onto City personnel, but rather to offer a vehicle through which they can come together to identify and solve their own issues with Council and staff’s help.

I listen to Public Works Director Tom Wooten brainstorm innovative methods for the City to improve garbage and trash collection, and then Downtown Economic Development Director Lew Holloway chimes in with an insightful comment about how the City of Stockton, California—where my friend and colleague Grant Kirkpatrick of the Lead For America cohort is currently serving as a Hometown Fellow in the City Manager’s office—is finding new ways to involve citizens in the  day-to-day governance of the community.

After our conversation concludes and I finish up my work for the day, I change into my running clothes and drive over to Patton Park where I see the usual crowd of skateboarders enjoying the crisp Blue Ridge Mountain air. I am about to hop on the Oklawaha Greenway trail and take part in my daily exercise routine.

This park is one of the sites included in the City’s ongoing Multi-Area Streambank Restoration Project that I am working on that will ultimately restore approximately 11,000 linear feet of streambanks and will protect existing infrastructure while improving stream health and water quality. We had our first progress meeting for the project last Thursday in the City Operations Engineering Conference Room where I was informed that invasive species removal work has already begun. The existing 18” clay sewer line will also be replaced with a 24” PVC line and a stormwater wetland retrofit will be installed, too.

I felt a bit out of place in the Roll Call Room earlier that morning, but since I’ve arrived in Patton Park, I’m reminded of how the work that I do as a public servant is making citizens’ lives better every day. As my fellow cohort member Dante Pittman would say, “What could be more special than that?”

After all, leadership is not solely defined by a title or position (though these things do of course matter). Leadership, as Block explains, is not a preternatural characteristic that some of us possess while others lack: it is a quality that exists in all human beings.

When we gather together as citizens at places around town like the Boys & Girls Club and Dry Falls Brewing, we are engaging in exactly the kind of “kitchen table and street corner democracy” that makes local government work for everyone.

As City staff, we all know that there is plenty of work to do when it comes to tackling wicked problems like homelessness, substance abuse, and domestic violence. But we can take solace in the fact that we won’t have to do it alone, because our citizens will be right there alongside us as we govern collaboratively to create the community of possibility that makes Hendersonville such a wonderful place to call home.

Photo: A 2018 Bank Stabilization Project at Brandy Branch in Mills River Village involving NC Cooperative Extension, Mills River Partnership, Jennings Environmental, Sierra Nevada, Asheville Greenworks and City of Hendersonville Stormwater. Photo credit Mills River Partnership, retrieved from the official website of the City of Hendersonville