A few thoughts on public discourse and groupthink in Savannah

Last Tuesday in my City Talk column, I launched an aggressive criticism of the proposed funding mechanism for Savannah Serves, a new ambassadorial, beautification, public safety initiative that would add a fee/surcharge/tax of 25 cents to every sales tax eligible transaction over $5 in the areas of Savannah where to-go cups are (or likely will be) legal.

I think it’s pretty obvious that such an extreme and regressive tax (that’s what I’m going to call it) is simply bad economics. According to Savannah Serves and city of Savannah estimates, approximately $1 million of the expected $3.5 million in annual revenue would be paid by locals, with the bulk of the tax being paid by consumers (or being swallowed by businesses) that engage in a large number of relatively low-cost transactions.

As it turns out, it seems that no one apparently vetted the legality of the funding mechanism before the big public rollout. I expect that the funding mechanism will either be deemed illegal right of the gate or that state lawmakers will look so dimly upon it that they would make it illegal. After all, if a city council can impose such a fee with just a majority vote, what would stop them from tacking a much larger tax onto every sale in a much larger area?

Anyway, we’ll know more on that soon.

I expected personal attacks before that column was even published. And I expected that none of the attacks would address the substance of my objections. Bingo. The attacks came raining down, mostly via social media, and I didn’t see a single person try to deal with the substance of my objections and argue that such a flat, regressive sales tax was a good (and not merely sufficient) funding method.

And then yesterday I got a letter that was just one step short of hate mail about a recent column where I outlined, in very measured language, the priorities I’d like to see from our new police chief Jack Lumpkin, who takes over the SCMPD in two weeks.

I think the writer of the letter thinks I am a racist who has some sort of unstated agenda. The writer was also angry that there was not a disclaimer saying that the views were mine and not those of the newspaper.

I write a column! There are opinions expressed! They are my opinions!

The criticism reflects an ongoing problem in the days of 24-hour news stations and new media: the blurring of “articles” and various types of opinion pieces, including pretty standard newspaper columns like mine.

The letter writer assumed that when I use a term like “college students” that I must only be talking about SCAD students. Why would someone assume that? My Sunday columns are rarely over 850 words, so when I say that a significant number of “college students” are part of the latenight mix downtown on weekends, I don’t see the need to detail what I mean. If I meant SCAD students, I would say so. In fact, in the context of the partying on River Street and in the City Market area that is causing a significant number of latenight police calls, I suspect SCAD students represent a pretty small minority.

Ironically, I suspect that I’d probably agree with that letter writer on the vast majority of local political issues that Savannah is dealing with. But somehow the writer thought that personal anger at me was an appropriate way to deal with supposed racial slights.

So how do we get to a point where opinions are challenged on their substance rather than via personal attacks? How do we get leaders in Savannah to accept that not everyone is going to agree on every policy decision?

I would argue that the existing groupthink is largely to blame for some huge errors in judgement — including Savannah Serves putting forth a funding mechanism that has little to no chance of being instituted (and possibly is illegal), and city staff working for a year on a revision of the alcohol ordinance that has some truly risible components (see my post The City of Savannah wishes that 18, 19, and 20 year-olds would disappear, which got over 10,000 page views over the Labor Day weekend).

Savannah’s leaders in both the private and public sector need to foster more dissent from within their own ranks, and then maybe they’d face less criticism when they launch major initiatives — and maybe they’d be better prepared to defend their positions on the merits rather than rely on personal attacks on their opponents.

2 comments for “A few thoughts on public discourse and groupthink in Savannah

  1. October 27, 2014 at 6:51 pm

    Well said.

  2. Sim Harvey
    October 31, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Nicely put…

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