Holy Baloney! I’ve been on Harlem City Council the entire seven years I’ve been back in this little town of my youth. We’ve begged and pleaded for people to please show up, please. One is a usual number, six cause for celebration and anything more is indicative of a raise in rates.
If the language in the 350 little yellow flyers which had been distributed over the weekend asking for answers and accountability from the city’s mayor, council and employees was designed to drag folks out of the woodwork to a meeting, it worked. At one point I counted nearly 70 good citizens of Harlem crowded into our little council chambers, holding up the walls, and spilling out into the foyer.
The flyer was emphatic in spirit yet no specific complaints were listed nor did anyone put their name to it. At the bottom of the inside page were the initials GFU, “Getting Fed Up Citizenry.” I updated my will, donned my Kevlar underwear and showed up at City Hall like a target, with no idea what to expect.
Personally, I get excited when a mob of people fill the room. No matter what they come for, they will leave with expanded understanding and answered questions. Mayor William Taylor opened the public forum part of the meeting by saying he’d like to see this turnout at all our meetings. Nevertheless, we sitting behind the bull’s eye were a bit apprehensive.
Dave Boisvert and Don Richman stood to share positions as spokesmen for the group. Let’s digress: Imagine that GFU is a metaphor for the eighth-grade class bully. Imagine that you are at a class function that features 45s of Pat Boone and Rickey Nelson on the turntable and pink punch with cookies. The bully stomps across the room, shuffles his feet, and asks, “May I have this dance.” Wowzers!
Boisvert spoke first. He requested an open forum where citizens can express views and problems and bring suggestions. He urged that citizens express constructive opinions. As a former councilperson and mayor during troublesome times, Boisvert said that he understands public responsibility and the concept of service. He said that the group wants to seek ways to improve Harlem and urged forward movement.
Richman, also a former public servant in Harlem, requested that the group conduct themselves in a constructive manner. He stated that the “roomful of people here have the responsibility to step forward and ask, ‘What can I do to help?’” He further declared “there is no blame (for problems) to be placed unless it is on all of us. We have let the city go downhill. We can work through this.” Richman then asked, “Can we work with you to make Harlem better?”
Several individual issues were brought to the floor such as summer water quality, the state of the streets and alleys as the result of fiber optics work, a clogged drainage ditch, the difficult-to-enforce decay ordinance, the stream of water which flows down the streets from Albertson’s coolers causing pits, the lack of trailer court ordinances and the ever-buckling surface of 4th Street.
Then Boisvert suggested that “working together, we take one issue at a time.” He requested that since “everyone has one or two pet issues,” tablets be sent around the room to gather suggestions and concerns. Mayor Taylor called for tablets to be distributed. Richman agreed to tally suggestions and help prioritize topics.
Harlem, like every shrinking small town on the Hi-Line, will never look the same as it looked 50 years ago. Yet, as one person said “We are responsible for the way our town looks today, but we need help from the city to enforce ordinances.” Richman agreed, saying, “We need to take responsibility to make our town pretty. It needs to be a cooperative effort.”
No matter how long the citizens’ list of concerns, council is familiar with every issue. We share the frustrations of trying to create the best possible city structure in which we can live and grow. I’m excited. People are talking, are motivated to help, to pull in tandem.
After public forum, I sat in tears as City Clerk Rebecca Skoyen read my letter of resignation from Council. The people I have worked with in city government have become my best friends in Harlem. Mayor Taylor took the opportunity to suggest to the crowd that now is a good time for someone to step forward to finish the remaining two years of my term. I’m excited to know that Harlem will continue to grow and improve. Hugs, anyone?
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High School in 1963 and left for good. She finds, upon her return, that things are a little diffeent. Keep in touch with her at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)