By Jeanne Veillette Bowerman
This past April 5th, my father, Paul T. Veillette, passed away. I mention this not for sympathy, but because he was a powerful force on the importance of both common-sense zoning, and learning and respecting the history of our towns, and was also a long-time columnist for The Chatham Courier. In fact, he and my mother, Frances, were part of the original group of Chatham citizens who expressed the need for some form of reasonable land-use zoning back in the late 60s and early 70s. Another powerhouse was Judy Grunberg, a dear friend to our family and this entire town. She was like a sister to my mother. Judy also recently passed. It’s been a heartbreaking year for our little town.
On many sun-filled days in my childhood, I watched Judy and Paul Grunberg with my parents, huddled around a picnic table, passionately discussing local politics. How I wish I could ask my father for advice on the predicament Chatham is in today.
Before my father and Judy left this Earth, I promised them both that I would do everything in my power to stop this current Town Board from overreaching and forcing zoning onto us more fitting for Westchester than for our rural, farming community. I take that promise seriously.
For all who knew Dad and Judy, you know they were reasonable, intelligent, well-respected, generous, selfless, and unshakable. Those are qualities every public servant should have. How I wish those adjectives described our current Town Board.
At one Public Hearing last May, after months of attending Town Board meetings and pleading for changes to these proposed zoning laws, Judy stood strong and asked the Board, “I just want to know one thing. Are you listening to us?”
Now months later, it is crystal clear they were not.
In an effort to combat the lack of communication by the Town Board, many citizens now attend public meetings, and I personally film them via Facebook Live and actively post on social media. Something the Town Board could easily do themselves. But instead, they constantly direct people to the terribly inadequate Town website. I create websites as part of my job, and this is the worst site I have ever tried to navigate. Agendas are frequently not posted until an hour before the meeting starts, if at all. The minutes are absent from many meetings. Note: This is not the fault of the Town Clerk. Councilman Michael Richardson removed the website duties from her one night, in a fit, publicly humiliating the Clerk, who dutifully and respectfully serves our town. I’ve never witnessed such a disheartening public display of control and disrespect.
This “transparency” they speak of is lacking. Why aren’t they using the communication tools of the 21st century?
What’s most disturbing is the Town Board’s dismissal of the citizens. They are in bizarre denial that our voices matter. As if it never occurred to them that the almost 300 outraged people who showed up to the July 8th Tri-Village Firehouse zoning meeting, which is a record number by the way, are actual human beings with cares, jobs, financial worries, and a desire to have rights as property owners. We voted them in. Why wouldn’t we want to feel heard?
We long ago tired of Maria Lull and other Town Board members lamenting, “Where were you before? Why haven’t you joined committees?” Is there an expiration date on when a citizen can get involved? Are we supposed to come out of the womb and head straight to the Town Hall?
Yet this Town Board consistently slaps the citizens’ hands for not being involved sooner. Maybe it’s just us, but wouldn’t the more appropriate response be, “Welcome to the table! Thank you for wanting to participate. How can we work together to improve our zoning and town?”
After witnessing our outrage and submission of hundreds of zoning questions, Councilman Richardson finally declared a change of heart. He would no longer support the Board’s strategy of passing the law now and amending later. They decided to conduct Q&As with the citizens, with Councilman John Wapner promising these meetings would continue “until no more questions are asked or no one shows up.”
Bravo! The citizens showed up for every Q&A. We came with new questions each time, only able to ask a handful at a single session, with many more questions patiently waiting for the next Q&A. The Board identified over 90 issues as needing to be addressed. Over 90! Yet they were ready to pass this deficient law on June 20th.
The Q&As were productive, polite, and I’d even go as far as to say, they were fun. We enthusiastically worked together with the Town Board with great results.
Until the Q&As abruptly stopped.
What happened to Councilmen Richardson’s and Wapner’s promises? Why didn’t our Town Supervisor Maria Lull insist the Board keep their word? We were yet again dismissed.
And now, the Board has violated our trust once more. Just as they posted the “cleaned-up” red-lined version of the proposed zoning law on the town site, they simultaneously filed paperwork with the County Planning Board to review the proposed zoning laws, as is, which is a major step needed toward voting these laws in. The filing occurred on September 30th, yet the date Town Supervisor Maria Lull put on the signed document was October 2nd. How could that not make us suspicious of wrongdoing?
Most importantly, in taking this action, they violated Open Meeting Law. They are required by law to discuss issues like this in a public meeting. The potential of submitting the zoning law to the county was never put on any agenda, never listed in minutes, and not in the filming I do of every Board meeting. Therefore, this decision, and signing of the paperwork by our Town Supervisor Maria Lull, was done behind closed doors.
Again, that is a violation of Open Meeting Law.
If this was on the up-and-up, why was there zero mention of the intent to file, and also no mention of the completion of filing? They should have at least informed us at the October 3rd Board meeting.
Let’s make this clear, this was not an act of incompetence. This was a deliberate act of deception. Either the Town Board purposely acted in unison to do this, or Maria Lull acted on her own. Either way, it is the most disrespectful action this Board has taken to date. Just when you think they couldn’t hit a new low, they do.
I still hear and see Judy standing strong, asking, “Are you listening to us?” I am so deeply sorry, my dear Judy, they still are not.
Instead of listening, they immediately point fingers of blame at anyone who disagrees with them. My father told me, when you point one finger, four fingers are pointing back at you. The Board would be wise to remember that.
Dear Town Board, the blame for this zoning mess and divide in our community rests squarely on your shoulders. You choose to disrespect us instead of work with us. You could have kept doing Q&As. But instead, you chose to stop, distract, and do back-room meetings.
They further insulted us by not posting the County submission document under “Zoning,” instead burying it under “Government,” then under “Comprehensive Plan,” then further down at the bottom of the page. We only found it by accident.
I don’t care how many Letters to the Editor they and their friends write or how many back-patting mailers they send out, claiming “Truth Matters.” They have repeatedly betrayed our trust. The truth is, they will do it again. The first time you’re a victim; the second, a volunteer. I will not volunteer to support another four years of this disrespect.
My father and Judy may not walk among us today, but they will forever be a part of the heartbeat of our community. In fact, Judy told me many times that for the first time in her life, she would not be voting Democrat. How I wish she and my father had gotten the chance to vote on November 5th. How I wish they were still here to call out the Town Board for their gross lack of effective communication and their utter disregard for their citizens and Open Meeting Law.
They may not be here, but I am. I will not stop speaking up until we have new leadership who show Chatham citizens the respect we deserve. That leadership is Donal Collins, Vance Pitkin, and Abi Mesick.