Aug 15, 2015

Rockland government and its barriers to participation - op-ed by Amy Files

Rockland government and its barriers to participation
by Amy Files

Last April, there was a big to-do: An announcement that a natural gas plant wanted to come to Rockland.

Of course there were concerns: Why the rush to sign a sales option with them? If they are going to purchase our City Hall, where would City Hall go? What are the environmental impacts? Should a plant be located so close to our schools and homes? Why do we need natural gas? How will this impact our town? Many questions! And again, what’s the rush?

If you speak to others who have faced similar proposals in other towns, you will find that this kind of rush is typical for these kinds of proposals. Things are made to feel rush, rush, rushed in order to force towns to make quick decisions. These large companies are masters of manipulation and have crafted their process — they know how to make towns and politicians feel this pressure that if they don’t act right away, they’ll forever lose out. The big money fossil fuel industry is no match for a little city with no training in this kind of high-level negotiation.

Residents who brought up concerns were belittled by some councilors and our town government — referring to their concerns as “wackadoodle,” paranoid and misplaced … among other things. Telling us we just didn’t know any better and that we absolutely had to sign on the dotted line in order for this company to make a Public Utilities Commission deadline. The whole impetus for this rush, we were repeatedly told, was because this company absolutely needed to meet this deadline. It was so important, in fact — that it was repeated to us up until the very morning of the revote, the very day of the deadline — it was repeated right up until they got the signature they wanted from us. Then they decided that they didn’t need to submit a proposal after all — it could instead wait until next year.

We were told repeatedly that this rush to vote was not a decision to bring a natural gas plant here — only a decision to begin more “conversation" about it. We were promised multiple workshops where we’d have ample time to ask questions and where we’d hear from representatives who were familiar with environmental concerns.

Since that vote to move forward, over the last three months, we’ve had one, count it — one — meeting. And this one meeting was not the workshop or “forum" that was promised — it was only another presentation from the power plant representative who did not bring with him answers to many of the questions that residents had.

In addition, residents were told that they would have the final say on this issue — when this sales option was voted on, we were told we’d be able to have a public vote to make the final decision on the plant. But when residents called City Hall soon afterwards to find out how and when this vote would occur — they were given very murky answers — leaving them to feel that City Hall would do its best to ensure that this vote was not binding.

Now — finally — an announcement of another meeting — a “forum.” The only problem? Again — barely a week’s notice! It was announced in yesterday’s council meeting that a 6:30 p.m. meeting is scheduled for next Wednesday, the19th. As of writing this, the listing isn’t even on the city calendar!

If council and our town government want trust from residents, if they want us to feel like they are going to include our concerns, questions and opinions in their decision-making — they need to make a much better effort to facilitate this participation. This includes ample notice of important meetings — a minimum of two weeks, ideally more. This means following through on your promises — if you say we’ll workshop something: workshop it! If you say we’ll have multiple workshops: follow through and make it happen like you mean it. If you tell us that we are going to be able to vote on this — make sure it’s clear to everyone that you intend to ensure this will happen.

And if you say that this is only a conversation, that minds have not been made up — perhaps it would be wise to direct town staff not to go around town and on local media touting why this proposal is, in their opinion, great for Rockland. Maybe councilors and staff shouldn’t go door-to-door to businesses and residents, power plant rep in tow, facilitating his ability to sell the proposal. Perhaps it would be wise not to publish opinions in the paper making it sound as though your mind has been made up before having that public conversation — the forum that hasn’t happened.

These actions make it look as though not only has our town government clearly made up their minds, but they’ve created a strong partnership with the power plant rep (a partnership that originated behind closed doors in secret executive sessions). If our government acts or speaks clearly in favor of this proposal, it leaves us feeling that they have no real motivation to have real discussion that questions it.

And these actions only contribute to residents' sense that private development always has a one-up over residents — they have an ability to have secret meetings behind closed doors — and then what feels like a private signoff before public discussion has even begun.

When pubic discussion is rushed and isn’t delivered as promised, this sentiment is then confirmed.

Giving residents only a week or so for notice of an important meeting is a barrier to participation. It places serious burdens on hardworking residents right in the middle of one of the busiest months of the year. They need to not only make last-minute changes to their work and personal schedules — but are challenged to even have the opportunity to hear about it. One week is barely enough time to get the word out about a meeting like this. Many will miss it, not aware that it’s happening.

This is not the first time this conversation has been brought up — and likely won’t be the last. But the next time a councilor questions why residents are so quick to want to “stop a process” because they are concerned it’s being rushed, not thoroughly thought through, and lacks serious public input or discussion … this is why. Because when our staff and councilors say that their minds aren’t made up — their actions and statements speak otherwise. And when they promise that they will facilitate multiple conversations before they make their decisions — that they want public input — in a case like this, where they all seem to be in agreement on an issue — this conversation simply does not happen.

Amy Files

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