"Hello Bertram, this is the mayor. I'm calling to extend an invitation to you to sit on the charter review commission of the city of Youngstown similar to Clingan Jackson's seat on the last commission. If you will accept that appointment I would appreciate if you would notify me, and if you're not interested I would appreciate if you would do the same. I'm trying to wrap it up by Friday.
"Please give it some serious consideration. I can be reached at ...
"I want you to become part of the solution by getting involved. Thank you."
You've got to hand it to Youngstown Mayor George M. McKelvey: He certainly has become proficient at sugarcoating zingers.
No, this reading of the mayor's invitation to yours truly to serve on the Youngstown Home Rule Charter Review Commission isn't journalistic cynicism. It's based on years of closely watching Mc-Kelvey's political ascension from city councilman to county treasurer to mayor. That journey -- lasting two decades -- has given rise to an officeholder who is at once talented, egotistical, paranoid and, yes, thin-skinned.
It is this last quality that warrants a jaundiced view of the mayor's invitation.
First, let it be said that there should be no question about McKelvey's sincerity in having the charter review panel reflect a cross-section of the community. He is also to be believed when he says that he does not intend to influence the work of the panel or its decisions in any way.
But a close reading of his invitation -- it was left on this writer's voice mail two weeks ago -- reveals one of his motives: to try to neutralize an occasional critic of city government.
The words, "if you're not interested," as opposed to, "if you are unable to," carry the suggestion that declining the invitation is tantamount to not doing one's duty as a citizen and not caring about what happens in the community.
But it is McKelvey's parting comment that reveals his underlying opinion: "I want you to become part of the solution by getting involved."
Consider that in recent months, the mayor has publicly voiced displeasure at what he calls the press's negative reporting and has been especially critical of The Vindicator for focusing on such issues as Youngstown's homicide rate.
Indeed, during a focus group session as part of the Youngstown 2010 planning initiative, McKelvey blasted the newspaper for what he said was its failure to report on all the good things going on in the city. His criticism was unjustified because it was not based on fact.
It doesn't matter how many positive stories are published about the city of Youngstown, only the ones that are uncomplimentary get the mayor's attention.
He fails to understand that highlighting city government's failures is being part of the solution. Why? Because if public employees care about public opinion, they will take the criticism seriously and strive to address the problems.
It is no accident that the mayor's invitation came on the heels of a column in this space (Jan. 26) about the charter review commission. The column suggested that the commission had an opportunity to explore the whole issue of city government and whether the current strong-mayor/part-time council setup is still relevant given the fact that Youngstown's population has shrunk to 80,000.
The question that was raised was whether a city manager, ceremonial mayoralty and a council made up of at-large lawmakers would not be more appropriate.
Role of the press
Granted, there was a swipe at the current officeholders, but that merely reflects the press's role as government watchdog. It's something McKelvey is reluctant to accept. In his world, if you're a critic, you're a part of the problem.
So, to be a part of the solution, you must stop talking about the high crime rate, deteriorating neighborhoods, vacant lots overgrown with weeds, illegal dumping sites, dirty streets and the like.
On the other hand, if you keep harping about the failing city school system and how it's responsible for the exodus of families with young children, you become a part of the problem. If you remind Mc-Kelvey of his campaign pledge to "change the culture of work in Youngstown City Hall," then point out that residents are still unhappy with the way things are, you're a part of the problem.
It's time for the mayor, members of council and other city government officials to remember who they are -- public servants -- and to recognize that constructive criticism is not a bad thing.