AT THE OUTSET the number of index cards in the pile came to 37. It looked like a manageable number of questions for the Chatham Town Board, the board’s attorney and its planning consultant to address in the next two hours. But the work of the “question card chasers” was just getting started. The final card count came to more than double that.
The board provided white index cards and pencils to Chatham residents–well over 200 of them–who filled the garage of the Tri-Village Fire Company in Old Chatham Monday evening. Many residents came prepared with brightly-colored, neatly-handwritten cards, or cards printed on paper thick enough for wedding invitations, a few torn scraps of paper and a pile of lasagna-size strips from laser-printed pages–a question on each about Chatham’s proposal for a new zoning law.
The idea behind the cards was that they would focus attention on the questions, not the questioners. Well, it’s a promising theory.
My job was to read aloud as many of the questions as time permitted and with each question ask one of the town officials to answer it. The question that made its way to the top of the ever-growing pile asked whether the board would consider holding a referendum on the zoning law. It drew applause having nothing to do with how I’d read it.
Town Attorney Sal Ferlazzo said state law does not permit a public vote on a new zoning law. He made his legal point that the law is not ambiguous and immediately faced unconvinced verbal challenges from individuals in the audience. The mood seesawed though the evening, with factions of residents at times combative and other times listening carefully to explanations of how specific sections of the proposal might affect their property.
Town planning consultant Nan Stolzenburg, responding to a question about how farming would be regulated, calmly listed the protections for farmers built into the proposal. For a moment mumbling ceased. The only sound in the room was Ms. Stolzenburg’s voice.
It didn’t last. The first pile of cards was gone but Randi Walker, co-chair of the Town’s Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, had arranged the late arriving cards by subject. We made progress reading those, too, though there wasn’t time to read them all.
The board has promised to post responses on the town website and board members were scheduled this week to meet with smaller groups of residents at Town Hall.
Before this week’s meeting somebody asked me: Isn’t it unfair that five people–the Town Board–could make such important decisions for the roughly 4,000 inhabitants of the town? Nope. That’s how representative democracy works. I don’t want to vote on every law at every level of government. We elect people to do that job for us and we have an imperfect but operational system to review their contract every few years.
The public has a role too. I left Monday’s meeting feeling good about living in a community where neighbors make time to participate in shaping local government policy. Sometimes the public has to get rude and speak out to make government listen. How can I weigh those views against my theory that the more you shout the less you hear? Maybe the answer is in the cards.