I went to the public information meeting about ATVs last night. Where there were no more than 20 people, and most of them were AVATV club members who already are familiar with the rules. It reminded me about the fire information meeting earlier this year, where again almost no one showed up. At city council often it’s just the daily paper’s reporter and me, and everyone else is at home.
Was it always this way, or did more people come out to these things at one time? I looked at the turnout statistics for municipal elections, and in 2005 it was about 15 percent. That isn’t a lot of involvement in community government.
Some people are obviously frustrated by that level of investment, though I wonder if that is significantly lower than other cities around the state.
City government allows people to vote in representatives, essentially so they don’t have to show up to meetings. Granted that might work if everyone read the newspaper or if the meetings were televised, but currently there are lots of people that are uninformed. I’m not sure what anyone can do about that.
I’ve covered the burned out buildings on Main Street pretty extensively, with several in depth stories. I saw the Vote Jobs ad in the daily that caused such a stir, and I’m not sure exactly what to get out of it. The process is one dictated by state law, and there isn’t anything any councilor could have done different about it. But if people aren’t informed and didn’t read my other articles about RSA 155B than its unlikely they’ll read the next one.
There will be lots of unanswered questions in this election. Councilor Landry pointed out a great question about Mr. Grenier’s stance on Clean Power. Mr. Grenier pointed out a great question on municipal finance, whether the budget should be balanced with a bond. Both of these issues came up to me Monday night, when the paper is essentially done and headed to the printer for Wednesday, and the next paper comes out the day after the election. Would I like to see these questions answered? Yes. Will I be able to do it before the election? No.
I’d like to say the Reporter has the tools to filter through all the election rhetoric to provide a clear view to residents, but it doesn’t. Four editions of my paper come out after the closing period before the election, and with the closing period being a Monday night that essentially rules out any good reporting for that Wednesday’s paper.
So I’ve got three papers to paint a clear picture, while not ignoring other news, like ATV trails and new businesses opening and PUC hearings. I do what I can, but it won’t ever be complete.
Couple that with low newspaper readership and it seems likely the paper has little influence in the discussion. I spend my days going around Berlin and talking to people, and what I find is many don’t understand the issues. People are mad about the buildings on Main Street, and they blame the council for taking them using immanent domain laws. Not possible, but they’re mad anyway. They blame the council for Laidlaw not moving into town. According to Councilor Mark Evans, who is not opposed to the project, the council hasn’t slowed Laidlaw down at all. But the council receives the criticism.
The same will be true of any future council, whether the incumbents stay in office or the challengers win. The council will get blamed for the city’s flaws, regardless of their ability to fix them. In many ways its remarkable people are ever reelected, considering how easy a target the council is.
If more people showed up I think they would have a different view. The council, the police department, the fire department, the city departments all work diligently to preserve, protect and improve the city. It’s not hard to realize that when you’re there every day. There are people who work primarily for their own interests in the community, but mostly its selfless sacrifice. If people showed up they’d see it. What I put in a paper only a small minority of the city reads doesn’t matter; how involved in the community people are does.
I get frustrated by this. I started this blog, and I’ve worked hard for the Reporter, because I want to see Berlin flourish. But these things don’t decline overnight, and it won’t return quickly either. There is hope for Berlin. The frustrating has been fading into the past, and it will continue to do so. The signs of new blood that I’ve been trying to point out in the Reporter haven’t disappeared just because it’s election season—they have increased. The ATV trail will be open in another week, and there are several new stores opening on Main Street. The pizza place that was closed for so long is opening again, and the southern burned out building is scheduled to be cleaned up in the next few weeks. In all, it’s a progressive, creative, revitalizing time for Berlin.
The fact is, no candidate is going to turn around Berlin’s job market in two years. That’s a hard truth campaign signs can’t fix. Because of that the next election is likely to be as fraught as this one.
I have had hold back flashes of despair for Berlin when the world seems aligned against it. I’m no more immune than anyone else to those feelings. It isn’t my city, but in covering it I’ve come to care about its future and its people. It deserves more than to be the butt of statewide jokes.
And I see dedicated people working to improve it, quite skillfully, without the support of residents. Many have lost the drive to pay attention to what goes on at city hall, but that can’t affect the people working there. The city needs those people, with passion and ideas and new ways at looking at things, to move projects forward and helping the city evolve. A few empty seats, I pray, won’t be enough to dissuade people who care.
Update: There was a good turnout tonight to the debate between candidates Mr. Grenier and Mr. Bertrand. It was a worthwhile exercise, and it did more to inform the public than a dozen newspaper articles. It speaks to the value of showing up. A fair portion of the city did tonight, and I hope many more do so again on Tuesday.