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EDITORIAL: Villagers’ voices matter


SPOILER ALERT: There’s some good news here. Don’t tell the federal Interstate Fake News Commission about it. They frown on efforts to make readers smile.

This editorial fails to meet the government’s minimum standard requirement for identifying a villain. Even if a licensed editorial writer like me wants to single out manmade climate change as the bad guy, that is no longer a topic we’re permitted to write about. Besides, it’s not unusual to have a chorus line of nor’easters stomp through the Northeast in February and March. We accept government assurances that the evidence tying these storms to Chinese Army hackers is still sketchy at best.

Instead, what we did have for a short period of time was a mayor and Board of Trustees in the Village of Chatham who attempted a great leap forward. It was intended to address a real problem that reappears each time there’s a measurable snowfall: unshoveled sidewalks.

There’s been a law on the books in Chatham for almost 30 years requiring property owners in the village to remove snow and ice from the sidewalks that border their land within 24 hours of the end of a storm. It’s rumored that in the past the board would occasionally send letters warning individual property owners who did not clear away the snow that the village would do it for them and then bill the owner. No one has offered evidence that such drastic measures were actually taken.

But early in February about 70 homeowners and businesses received letters from the village informing them of the amounts they owed the village. If these hooligans did not pay their snow removal bill, the amount would be added to their annual village tax bill. The trustees are to be commended for the sudden and efficient method of tackling the problem. Why waste time and resources on troublesome legal matters like the right to a trial, an appeal or the chance to confront your accuser? Look, the snow is gone. You have no case. Pay up.

This was a great victory for those who, like me, had complained winter after winter about slippery and impassable sidewalks. It was a great surprise, too. For who could have known that our village leaders would generously redistribute the wealth of the non-shoveling scofflaws by clearing our walks and fining us for that service?

And who knew that in their wisdom our leaders would determine that I was a member of the scofflaw gang? How fortunate I was.

Many of us scofflaws attended the Village Board meeting last week to express our… gratitude for the shoveling-fee plan and to share the lessons we had learned from shoveling our walks only to have them covered up again as plows cleared the streets. Some of us wondered what could mere villagers like us hope to accomplish by petitioning our leadership? And yet, we were stoked.

And then came the biggest surprise. At the outset of the meeting, none other than the mayor, the leader of the leaders of the village, apologized for the way the sidewalk clearing fee had been imposed. He said that the collection of fees for failure to clear our sidewalks would cease for now and that all who had paid would have their payments refunded. And he invited us villagers to take part in a committee that will set new fees or perhaps consider other ways to make wintertime sidewalks safer. The trustees gave him their support.

We are unused to government doing the right thing for the public. Yet here it was happening before us.

Could it be that efficient government conducted out of the public view doesn’t produce the best results? Could a public admission of error be a sign of strength? Is an apology strengthened when it comes with plans for change?

Yes; yes; and maybe, but only if the plans offered are carried out.

Villages are the smallest units of municipal government in this state. It’s where government gets personal, especially when differences arise. Sometimes villages voluntarily dissolve their government either from lack of funds or lack of interest. What happened in Chatham last week– Government responding wisely to the will of the people–illustrates that our species retains the capacity for self government when we have capable and honest leaders it. But as with every other level of democratic government, if you want to have this kind of government you have to show up, especially if you want it to last.

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