Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Opinion: Let’s Create More Interesting & Useful Forums

Submitted by Catherine Johnson, she is an architect and is trained as a town planner. Johnson is a 2019 Democratic candidate for Planning and Zoning.
I personally want to thank the 4 candidates who weren’t able to come to last Thursday night’s candidate forum, for sparing us additional torture. Stephen’s summary (Oct 18) was kind, but note his efficiency in summarizing 16 people’s responses from almost 2 hours into 3 sentences. The answers were repetitive and so dull, I wanted to chew my arm off and knock myself unconscious. Save for one candidate who delighted throughout, I felt trapped in a reoccurring loop of “education, taxes, and riverfront.”

I ask the 4 missing candidates to send me their would-be answers and, if found interesting, they’ll each have my vote.

I would take this Forum of Dullness as a danger sign. In two hours, no one mentioned even a single syllable of any other aspect of town outside of the riverfront and the lights on the highway - one mentioned Main St, but barely. One did say something about how some residents wanted stores. Though hosted by school groups, the questions were really more for P&Z candidates: why ask candidates for common council how to remove a traffic light? I think a better format than everyone answering the same question would have helped.

No candidate suggested any strategies that left an impression. For all the mentions of taxes, no one gave a solid example of where, how, or what type of development brings in the biggest bang for our infrastructure buck. It made me realize the reason we’ve languished is that we -both our leaders and citizens - don’t have a picture of what sustainable development looks like or where it should go. It’s time we educated ourselves about what kind of development we should be encouraging and how we can build these places ourselves. No magical developer is going to swoop into town and make it happen. Small incremental development is how we turn trouble spots around. I would love to see a city-wide discussion about how we can start investing ourselves and also ways we can capture and build on our local economy by starting new businesses.

Regarding the highway, the lights aren’t really the issue. Stop talking about lights. The real question is, how to mend the damage from putting a highway between our city and the river? We must develop the vision ourselves. The DOT has no Michelangelo they’re keeping hidden. And enough with “pedestrian bridge” over Route 9 already. Let’s not perpetuate bad ideas any longer. This idea was fleshed out during the riverfront study (2013) and found to be both unnecessary and undesirable. There are far more elegant ways to connect to the river. How this idea continues to live on, I don’t know. Perhaps I need to sharpen the silver stake I keep handy this time of year?

What I found deeply strange was that no one talked about making Middletown more livable: improving neighborhoods, encouraging local retail, expanding transit. Why aren’t we taking advantage of our ideal position within the state by linking up to everything around us? Middletown is a very affordable place to live. What we need is connecting ourselves to the larger employment centers around us. If we don’t start to build a broader transit network, we’ll lose another generation of kids who come back from college and have to move elsewhere.

Making room for new people and new ideas 
The last thing the forum got me thinking about was, how can we involve more people in making decisions about how to make life better in Middletown? Is the common council the only way to serve? Why aren’t we preparing more people for civic service? Notice that I didn’t say “politics.”

If you have served on a committee or the council for 10 years, perhaps you can give another person a chance and steward someone younger than you? Are people not useful unless they have a title? One exception: professionals who serve. Accountants on budget committees and engineers on public works commissions are good people to have.

How about we start by showing people what is done on committees and think about ways to innovate? Could we make the municipal process more efficient by having shorter meetings? The Queen has people stand at meetings just for this reason - she stands too. Can we connect to citizens better? How about shopping new ideas by having presentations at pop-up beer gardens instead of in Room 208? Can we brainstorm about growing commerce by giving away free use of a storefront for a year? Maybe we can revive the newspaper by paying the salary of a journalist to report on city meetings? We aren’t able to having robust conversations because we don’t have a common set of information.  How about turning around a part of the city with experimental zones and moveable structures to inject activity?

Highlight comments
  • Vinny:   The lights on Route 9 are there because we wanted them. It made people stop and notice our downtown. We may want something different now, but they are there because we made that happen.
  • Gene:   I’m wondering if the restaurant on the riverfront the best use of that property now?
  • Hope:   Let’s educate people for all kinds of skills.
  • Phil:   On summer weekends, there were beach umbrellas all over the Portland side of the river.
  • Jon:   People mention a [big box store], but they don’t understand the land use implications.
  • Matt:   I see new buildings going up around town, but the tax rate is not affected.
I propose the following format for a future forum

Pick a question out of a hat. My three would be:
  • Have you ever gotten to work without your own car? 
  • Describe a place you’ve lived and loved, and why. 
  • How would you mentor someone for a city committee?

Let’s follow the classic boy/girl mixed seating at dinner parties, by alternating Dem-Repub-Dem-Repub. No sitting next to your buddy.

If someone has already given your answer, say something else. The goal is to get the most ideas out in the air.

If you don't actually answer the question, you have to leave the stage. Bombasts will get special punishment after the event. I suggest the pillory.

Describe 3 ideas citizens mentioned when you went door-to-door, that no else has mentioned.

Brief personal credentials will be listed on a group handout and projected on the screen at beginning and end. Let’s use the time together instead to hear ideas.

Dare to give one radical idea for growing commerce, turning around a part of the city, or connecting more citizens with civic service (etc).

Finally, I must commend one candidate, Jon Pulino, for an absolutely delightful set of responses. He both informed and entertained. Most memorable was his description of the importance of a master plan for everything, including your house - which your wife may not know about. I only wish I had some idea of where he worked

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