November 26, 2013 —
Good local governance requires an implicit partnership between elected officials and citizens with each party doing its part to make and implement good decisions for their community. The term social contract comes to mind—an agreement between the governed and the government defining and limiting the rights and duties of each.
When parties on either side of the equation fall short of meeting responsibilities and expectations, the functioning of a civil society (or in this case, the functioning of a civil community) is put at risk. You can see exactly what a broken civic relationship looks like if you view video excerpts of the meeting of the Village of Bloomingburg, NY Planning Board meeting on September 26. (www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Bloomingburg+NY+%2B+planning+board+... )
The anger of the overflow crowd of citizens is plainly evident, shouting down the village planning board. The reasons for the citizens’ wrath are many but focus on construction of an approved 396-unit, high-density townhouse development and adjacent 16-room private girls’ school in this rural village of about 400 residents. Unable to conduct normal business over the raucous gathering, the planning board cut the contentious meeting short and adjourned. Since then municipal officials have not been convening municipal meetings in Bloomingburg. This controversy has been brewing of several years, and this is not the first contentious public meeting on this subject.
We at The River Reporter believe that the crisis in Bloomingburg offers a cautionary tale for other communities, and that it is therefore worthwhile to look at what the rights and duties of governments and citizens are.
In the compact between government and the governed, municipal officials are expected to conduct public business openly and transparently; to consider the impact of policies, programs and projects on their community and its citizens; to hear community input before decisions are made and, once made, officials are to be accountable for their decisions, and, of course, to obey the law.
Finally; one of the responsibilities of elected municipal officials is to hold regularly scheduled government meetings. If this requires finding a venue large enough to accommodate large numbers of people, then it behooves officials to do so. Citizens have a right to be heard, no matter how unpleasant the listeners may find the message.
There is, however, a case to be made that responsibility for this crisis must also be shared by citizens. This position is expressed in just a few words by Mayor Mark Berentsen at a town meeting in October 2012, when he asked the assembled residents, “Where were you in 2006?” This is when the original development project was first proposed, featuring 190 luxury homes, a swimming pool and a golf course. Since then for various reasons, the project morphed into its current incarnation, a cluster development with hundreds of townhouse units. This project, a majority of local residents clearly deem unacceptable.
It is certainly laudable that citizens from the Townships of Mamakating, Wallkill and Crawford, and the Villages of Bloomingburg and Wurtsboro, have become involved and more empowered in local governance since July 2012 when the Rural Community Coalition was formed around this issue: “to hold its elected officials to the highest standards in accordance with the law, to work proactively for transparency and inclusively in their governance and to represent the will of the people who elected them with the goal of maintaining the character of the community in its growth.”
Yet, if citizens of these towns and villages had been involved since 2006 by keeping a routine and watchful eye on the planning and approval process, which resulted in approval in 2010, the current crisis might have been avoided.
Generally, local governments try to obey the rules: meetings are held on a regular schedule, municipalities post all legally required announcements in a local newspaper, and avoid meeting in secret to discuss public business. These are matters informed citizens should know about. However, town meetings, planning board meetings, water and sewer meetings, school board meetings are often routine and boring, and this is why citizen attendance is commonly sparse at best. Ruefully, citizens all too often discover that they come to the process too late and are therefore stuck with top-down development planning and project decisions. The lesson they learn is very simple—in a democracy, vigilance is required.
In the old days, when students were taught civics lessons in school, they learned about the rights and duties of citizens and how government works. Today civics is no longer taught; its lessons are learned in the world of hard knocks. Perhaps it is time to teach civic education once again.
[Editor’s note: For interesting reading and a toolkit for learning about civic education, here is a good resource: www.pgexchange.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=133&Itemid=122]