From Open Public Involvement to Broken Promises

There are several people who run our Facebook page and website, but I wanted to share that this post is from me, Jeanne. I have gone to almost all of the Q&A and Town Board meetings, and tonight, at the August 28th Special Town Board meeting, I’m the one behind the camera. And yes, you occasionally hear me huff or puff. It’s hard not to, sometimes. But up until this week, I had been hopeful about this Q&A process, because I witnessed it working, firsthand. Then… things abruptly changed.

Most of the recording below (and also posted via Facebook Live) consists of the discussions by the board of possible changes to the zoning law (a law they were about to pass on June 20th, but are now clearly finding many faults within it). It’s important to watch the discussions. That’s why we film them—to show how the sausage gets made. You’ll see that when the Board chooses to listen to the public’s comments, and re-examine the document, good changes happen.



But I also suggest you fast forward to the Public Comment section at the end to witness the citizens’ frustration when the Board chose not to confirm continued scheduling of zoning Q&As with us, despite having previously promised they would keep having them… until all questions were asked and answered.

In fact, the Town Board’s promise was quoted in the Columbia Paper, in earlier Town Board meeting minutes, and in their own Democratic Party mailing that went out recently.

“We will meet until there is nothing left to meet about.”

John Wapner

I don’t believe for one second that the decision to not schedule another Q&A is unanimous by the Board. I do believe when John Wapner made the declaration above, he meant it. He offered that opportunity in good faith.

However, tonight, Maria Lull refused to promise more Q&As, and Michael Richardson said that he wasn’t saying there would be no more Q&As, but in the next breath he also stated that he was not going to promise that there would be more Q&As either.

“Let’s get the revised document together and see what happens…” was the theme.

I do understand the need to clean the document up and do a reset. It’s a mess. But why stop the progress of the Q&As and block the public involvement while you’re doing it? We’re capable of multitasking!

Another unkept promise was to put a red-line version of the new law vs. the existing law on the Town of Chatham website. Up until now, there has never been one presented to the public. We’ve only seen red-line versions from one draft to another. That is not what people need to see. For example, it would be extremely helpful for citizens to know when something is a mere carryover, as opposed to a new regulation.

Full transparency means you show the citizens how their current law compares to the law you would like to pass.

Let’s hope they do that. As soon as possible.

I’ll tell you what’s going to happen if the public feels locked out again… another Tri-Village Firehouse meeting, overflowing with 300 angry citizens… or more this time.

What baffles (and saddens) me the most is these Q&As were absolutely helpful to the board and to the citizens. People want to feel heard, and we mostly did. Were these perfect meetings? Of course not, but we at least got to have an open dialogue with two board members at a time, even if our opinions didn’t always make it back to the remaining three board members. It was better than nothing. The Board even referenced previous Q&A discussions in tonight’s workshop and admitted the Q&As were helpful in reaching agreement on changes. (Well, everyone except Maria).

They are clearly in a rush, but we don’t know why. There is quite literally no zoning emergency that Chatham is suffering from. None.

I won’t even go into how tone deaf it was to set up a Special Town Board meeting on the first night of the Columbia County Fair… the biggest family event of the year.

We’ve heard over and over how much time the board has put into these proposed laws, but the public’s commitment is equally important. Some have missed vacations, time with their kids before sending them off to college, taken days off from work to read the proposed zoning laws and do research, all to attend the barrage of meetings crammed into the past weeks. They are volunteering their time because of their love and commitment to Chatham.

In their recent Democratic mailing that supports the re-election of Maria Lull, it was stated this Board should be applauded for having over 40 meetings this year. I respectfully challenge that statement. The reason they have had so many meetings about this proposed zoning law is because they have chosen to take the control and duty away from the Zoning Board.

Do they not trust their own Zoning Board? Even if they do, they have certainly usurped their authority.

Town Boards creating zoning laws is not the standard in municipalities. Why? Because they are not zoning experts. Zoning Board members are required by NYS to take classes on zoning so that they can recommend appropriate potential laws, sometimes involving a Zoning Implementation Committee, then those draft laws go through a series of steps and reviews by multiple committees, finally ending up at the Board level for a vote, after a Public Hearing.

Maria Lull chose to task the Board with the minutia of going line by line. We can only assume this is because she wants more control over the law, and over the timeline. We don’t know though, because she rarely talks at the meetings.

That is not effective leadership.

Ironically, this decision to halt Q&As will actually waste time. The public participation has sped up changes to lightening speed!

So, let’s just give Ms. Lull a bone. Let’s say her involving the public in Q&As was strategic to make this go faster. Brava! But then why stop the Q&As?

They worked.

I can’t imagine the number of hours a Zoning Board would have had to endure to get to the quantity and quality of revisions made on this proposed law since early July. So much has changed for the better because of public involvement.

We are not slowing this down. We are speeding it up.

Which brings me to my next point… the Board is not just wasting time, they are also wasting money with their “take control” approach. Instead of using the free hive minds of a very intelligent public to assist, they are going to toss things back and forth to Nan Stolzenburg (the planner) and Jeff Lyons (the attorney), then back to a public hearing, then back to Nan and Jeff… more of your tax dollars lost.

How is that helpful for anyone?

I can say without reservation that I truly believe if they kept going with the Q&A approach, they would have succeeded in creating a better law, faster, and with much less money. Now? They are refusing to toss this back to the Zoning Board and also refusing to promise an open door to continued public involvement.

Please note, if you went to the Tri-Village Firehouse and wrote a question down on a card, do not assume it’s being considered. Two people in attendance submitted questions that were ignored after that firehouse meeting, yet when they came to the Q&As, their questions got answered. If this happened to two people, I assure you, it’s happened to more.

So, if we have no more Q&As to ask questions, how can we ever be sure our concerns will be addressed?

We can’t.

Mr. Richardson stated that part of the Board’s reluctance to continue Q&As is that they were starting to hear repetitive questions. Of course they were. Unless someone came to every single Q&A, they would have no idea what was asked because, again, no information was posted on their website.

Clear communication is not rocket science. We, Chatham United, are just a bunch of concerned citizens, yet we quickly created a website, Facebook, and Instagram that we update consistently and timely. It works. All they had to do is have someone live streaming the Q&A meetings online, like we do for the Board meetings, and everyone could have watched and potentially heard answers to a question they, too, might have had. (Note: The Town of Chatham Communication Committee has reestablished a Facebook page, so please follow it.)

We also know many people did not attend the Q&As because they were waiting to have their questions from the Tri-Village Firehouse meeting answered and posted on the Town website, as not to duplicate their questions at these meetings. Tonight, the Board held up a stack of papers with what they claim are “rhetorical” questions that are being addressed by the Board (any question starting with “Why…” was considered rhetorical). We appreciate the Boards efforts in answering them and look forward to those being posted, but they will most likely not be up for weeks.

It is with a heavy heart that I admit I no longer have faith at all in this process, and I have also lost faith in our Town Supervisor’s ability to keep her word. A person’s word matters, especially the word of someone we put into office.

If we can’t trust the word of our leader, what do we have? We certainly don’t have a healthy democracy… or a healthy town.

“If your actions don’t live up to your words, you have nothing to say.”

― DaShanne Stokes

Our actions matter, too. We can’t bellyache about these laws if we aren’t willing to be a part of the solution. We need to be active in solving the problem, not just gripe and moan on Facebook.

So, what can we do? We can keep working hard, keep making lists of questions, keep going to as many board meetings as possible, email questions and concerns to the Board, spread the word about upcoming Town Board meetings, and stay engaged.

Even if they never schedule another Q&A, our town deserves our dedication and commitment to its success. You deserve it! Please stay engaged!

If this unfortunate turn of events taught us anything, it’s that bad things happen when we don’t stay on top of our government.


Check our Facebook page, this website, and the Town of Chatham website and calendar for updates. VOTE FOR DONAL, VANCE, AND ABI ON NOVEMBER 5th.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: