Democracy Inaction: Video of Seawall Stonewall

Whether or not you’ve been following the story of the downtown Stevens Point seawall, this video is instructive.  I’ve argued that there was a clear mandate from citizens attending the July 20 Stevens Point Common Council meeting about this issue, and the video below is a very accurate  summary of how things went.

(Mike Richards video)

As I’ve noted before, not a soul who spoke — and there were a dozen — thought this was a fair assessment, including those who don’t live in the former floodplain and aren’t being assessed.

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Early in the meeting, the halls  outside the council chambers were filled with overflow; not visible are citizens lining the wall at the far end of the hall or the walls along the hallway that enters this one from the right. (personal photo)

The opening shot of folks standing in a hallway doesn’t do justice to the crowd size early in the meeting (it started at 7 p.m. and ended around midnight, with the seawall issue being taken up shortly past 10 p.m., after many interested parties had left).  Somewhere between two and three dozen were sitting, standing and leaning anywhere they could at various times during the early hours of the meeting.

Regardless of how anyone feels about who should pay, this clearly sets a precedent about how the city approaches special assessments — even though the decision also breaks precedent set three years ago on a similar project for McDill Pond, for which the city and Portage County put up a third of the costs each.

Did it make a difference that McDill is on the edges of a much more affluent neighborhood?  Good question.

The city has portrayed the seawall as a “you benefit, you pay” situation to a subset of property owners and ignored the benefits accruing to the entire city. Rhetorically, it was a great strategy, but most people who follow the issue closely and examine all the facts should realize the city approach was a dramatic oversimplification of the issue.

Some city staff and council members like to compare the seawall to sidewalks (which individual property owners are responsible for), but the issue is much more complicated.  The seawall is more closely akin to the Hoover Avenue project in its impact on the economy and public safety.

The new precedent for assessments appears to be that if the city has an easy target, it will take aim.  That’s not a comforting idea to those with fewer political and economic resources.

In any event, it’s important for all taxpayers — especially less-powerful individuals who don’t have the resources of a large corporation or a city staff — to realize how decisions are made.  A summary like this is a good start for those who haven’t followed the issue as carefully.

Although this issue may seem dead to many folks, I’m posting this because the lessons from it are clear:

  • Don’t count on your elected representatives listening, knowing the facts or asking the right questions. There are always good people among them, but as a group, they may not be as prepared or effective as we’d like them to be.
  • Don’t be reluctant to speak out, as some who attended the July 20 meeting were (many of us talked to them and knew their feelings, but couldn’t get them to up to the lectern to address the council).
  • Some folks just aren’t as likely to get a friendly reception from politicians, such as those in firmly middle-class neighborhoods as opposed to more upper-income brackets.  But If you don’t speak out, you could suffer from the whims of an uninformed or uncaring set of decision-makers.  Even if you do speak out, you may still suffer, which means you’ll have to work a lot harder the next time.
  • Information — lots of it, presented as frequently as possible — is crucial to changing minds.  Many people, including your elected representatives, don’t seem to have the time to read or think about issues, so it’s up to individuals and groups to work on information campaigns. These efforts may require traits ranging from patience and persistence to assertiveness.

In any even, there may still be more news regarding this issue in the near future. Stay tuned and please stay involved in your local governance.

Kudos to Mike Richards for producing this video. from shooting to editing.

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