I’ve lived in a small Vermont town for the last 22 years. In that time one thing has struck me time and again: how very, very, very important it is To Show Up. Unlike the large, anonymous suburb where I was raised, in a small town one person’s voice really can change the conversation, turn the tide, make a difference. I’ve seen it.
The only catch is that it takes time. Years ago, our local Town Meeting used to take a whole day and involve voting on the floor. Today? Town Meeting is held at night, competing with dinner hour, homework and a million other commitments. Attendance is dwindling and consequently so is participation.
Inevitably, there are those who like it better that way. After all, when you have meetings no one shows up to, you can get a lot done, without all the messy, uncomfortable questions that public participation can bring.
I’ll give you a for instance. Last December I was asked to join the Library Board in my town of Pawlet, so I went to a meeting to find out more. I learned that they were contemplating an expansion to the library projected to cost the town $300,000, yet at the time no one on the Library Board seemed to be particularly in favor of it.
This struck me as odd. Something was up, I thought. I decided not to join the Library Board.
Instead, I spent the next few months showing up. I attended meetings and asked questions. I found out that it all started when the Pawlet Library asked the Select Board to fix a simple problem: in the winter months the handicapped access ramp was covered with falling ice and snow. Could anything be done about this? An architect was hired.
This is when the $300,000 project was introduced.
As you can imagine, the expensive plan doesn’t just fix the ramp’s ice and snow problem. Instead, it calls for the existing handicapped access ramp to be demolished, and a whole new entryway added. It calls for an elevator to the lower level and for a handicapped access bathroom to be added there.
Which would be great if there was this awesome series of rooms that was anxiously awaiting access down there, but unfortunately there isn’t. What is down there is what you would expect in the basement of a three-room schoolhouse built in 1912: a small basement room with tiny windows and two large support columns obstructing the center.
It is called the Matt Waite Room, because several years ago it was fixed up and turned into usable space in memory of one of our beloved residents. I’m not knocking this space, mind you- it would be perfect as a room for additional book stacks, or extra reading space, or perhaps more computer carrels… but all of these uses are redundant to the ones upstairs and would therefore not necessitate an expensive elevator.
The fact is that no one has ever formally complained about poor access to this room- I know, because I asked. That’s probably because there are many great meeting spaces in town that not only accommodate large groups and exhibitions, but already have handicapped access: the elementary school gym, the Congregational Church meeting room, and the Pawlet Town Hall auditorium. Which means that to date our town has spent over $12,500 on architectural plans that solve a nonexistent problem.
The reason repeatedly given to me was because the Select Board wanted it. By showing up, however, anyone could plainly see this was not the case. In fact, clear support was expressed by only one of the five Select Board members.
All of this is weird enough. But then I attended the most recent Library Board meeting. I gave them an actual transcript from a Select Board meeting, demonstrating the lack of consensus, so that they didn’t have to just take my word for it.
Now, I really didn’t expect them to say, “Hey thanks, Eve! You know, for doing all this work to try to clear up the confusion! ” But I also didn’t expect what did happen.
The Chair of the Library Board eyed me. She skeptically cited my attendance at many meetings, and how much time was involved. Then she said: “I have to ask. What is your motivation in all this?”
As a matter of fact, I do have a motivation. I was one of the founding members of the Pawlet Projects Committee, which worked to save the abandoned schoolhouse in our historic town center, ultimately turning it into our beautiful community library. The first meeting was held in my living room. For years we worked tirelessly to fundraise and grant-write, and ultimately to move the library from a cramped room of the Town Hall to its expansive new site across the street.
But all that is assuming that simply being a concerned citizen is not enough, which it is. I understand that the Library Board wants me to go away and stop asking uncomfortable questions. But you know what? Whether this project- this elevator to nowhere- gets built or not, I have a right to show up. We all do. We all have a right to disagree, and we all have a right to ask questions. Even uncomfortable ones.
Especially uncomfortable ones.
In fact, as it turns out, that’s what public meetings are for.
So I encourage you to show up. Go to your next public meeting- no matter what it is— Zoning Board, Planning Commission, Design Review Board— and See What’s Happening. Yes, it will take time, and yes there will be boredom- there’s always that. But you never know what you might find out, what questions you might ask that will make a difference. If you live in Pawlet show up and ask why we need a $300,000 boondoggle instead of a nice, serviceable ramp roof. If they look at you askance and ask you what your motivation is, you will know: you’re doing some good.