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Council Corner: Vision and voice of the people

My final year on the Ashland City Council is a time for reflection. I’ve learned a great deal from you, the citizens of Ashland, over these seven-plus years. Many of you have written, phoned and emailed me, voicing concerns, worries, upsets and satisfactions. The Fourth of July holiday provides a broader context for these reflections, especially regarding governing and the true meaning of our national birthday. For clearly, the holiday is about more than a parade, barbecue and fireworks.

Both nationally and internationally, we are witnessing the rise of a populism born of widespread frustration with the institutional status quo. In Britain with Brexit and here at home with the rise of populist movements on both sides of the political spectrum, we hear — if we choose to listen — the voices of people of all stripes who have come to feel their governing institutions are no longer responsive to their deepest concerns. At the same time, those in power appear stunned and surprised by this widespread disconnect.

July Fourth is pivotal in our national psyche. In the Declaration of Independence I find a revolutionary document born of similar frustration, demanding independence from the tyranny of a government that failed to hear and reflect the people. The constitutional democracy that grew out of this revolution established principles of representative government with elected leaders who are to reflect and embody the vision and the voice of the people. By virtue of our vote and through our free expression, we have come to enjoy a sense of participation and ownership in government. However, for many this appears to have been lost.

This is true in local community government as well. I wonder how much of a sense of participation and ownership Ashlanders actually feel? My experience, after hearing from you, suggests that many do not feel their voices are heard. People should easily be able to learn how their tax dollars are spent. You expect both accountability and transparency from your council and mayor, who are, after all, elected at-large, to represent the entire community of neighborhoods, including residential and downtown interests. You want your voices and your vision reflected in city policies and decisions that directly affect your lives. You want representation that rises above rubber stamping and group-think.

Two examples underscore the disconnect:

The Visitors Welcome Center — Over 250 people from Oak Knoll, the neighborhood closest to the welcome center, testified in person and via emails that they did not want this center approved. They offered impressive, well-researched arguments and feasible alternatives. Yet, over their strong objections, the council and mayor supported the center, which is now under construction.

The Normal Neighborhood Master Plan prompted hundreds of Ashlanders to familiarize themselves with intricacies of city planning. Throughout the process, when requests for changes to the plan were made, citizens felt strongly that their voices went unheard. In the end, the City Council chose not to honor citizens’ alternatives and not to hold developers responsible for the millions of dollars of surrounding infrastructure improvements needed to support this massive development. Consequently, taxpayers may be forced to foot the bill. Over the concerns of taxpayers, the council majority consistently supported the developers.

These and other recent council decisions raise some questions:

Are citizens truly heard when they speak at council meetings and send email to council members?

If council members are correct that they are often more knowledgeable on issues than the citizens who speak out, why can there not at least be more of an open dialogue and greater transparency, so that citizens have easier access to critical information, access that is timely and allows them to offer input before decisions are “done deals?”

How objective are the council’s decisions when ad hoc committees and city commissions are mostly staffed by advocates of the Chamber and those with downtown points of view at the expense of those with neighborhood concerns?

In the truest spirit of our national holiday, I urge all in public office to engage in processes and dialogue more conscientiously reflecting the vision and voices of all the people.

I’m listening, contact me.

Carol Voisin is a member of the Ashland City Council.