Editorial: Retreats help the city move forward

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 25, 2018

Long ago, when David Treme was city manager and obsessive about goal-setting, the Salisbury City Council used to take annual retreats out of town, to places such as Graylyn Estate in Winston-Salem and Mid Pines Inn in Southern Pines.

The idea was to get council members away from Salisbury and all the distractions so they could concentrate on setting the city’s direction. This was done in balance with all the staff presentations they heard on planning, engineering, public services, water-sewer, police, fire, human resources, recreation, technology and finance.

Former Finance Director John Sofley always delivered a kind of State of the City address on where Salisbury government stood moneywise — how revenues were keeping up with expenditures, how the fund balance was doing and what had to give as far as taxes.

Toward the end of the two days, many poster-sized sheets of paper listed goals the council wanted to accomplish, then members set about the task of prioritizing those wants and needs. In effect, the exercise gave city departments certain marching orders for the year to come and a way for Treme to assess progress or pitfalls and report back to the council.

Otherwise, the retreats were full of good food, refreshments, socializing and even rounds of golf on occasion.

But the out-of-town retreats also proved easy targets to criticize and became more difficult to defend. Editorials, such as those in this space, asked why the city was spending taxpayer money going to expensive places elsewhere. Residents also questioned whether the retreats were attempts to do things in secret and an effort to make it more difficult for the public to attend.

So the annual retreats stayed in Salisbury, bringing us to the council retreat conducted Wednesday and Thursday at West End Plaza. This year, council members placed their priorities on economic development, community development and youth opportunities — nothing surprising, though probably in years past more of a focus has gone to public safety and bringing the Police Department up to speed on salaries and manpower.

Some good ideas, as always, surfaced during the discussions. Brian Miller suggested bringing back the resident surveys the city used to conduct on a more routine basis. City officials often gleaned good information from the responses, which usually led to better customer service.

Mayor Pro Tem David Post proposed a minority and small business angel fund to help capitalize new businesses. This idea has merit, especially if it could be tied in with the Rowan IDEA Center taking shape at West End Plaza.

Councilwoman Tamara Sheffield pushed for more sidewalks in neighborhoods where people actually walk, not along busy thoroughfares where people have often complained about “sidewalks to nowhere.” This makes sense.

The retreat spawned numerous other discussions, and the two days were important for this newly constructed council to get to know each other better and have the information they need in moving toward budget discussions.

So retreats are worthwhile, no matter where they take place.