Like most things, my words can’t do actual events justice. I’ve now seen a number of things at council I’m thankful I didn’t miss. This is a brief account of the most recent one.
The city Housing Coordinator Andre Caron is a “rock star.” He has been instrumental in removing dilapidated properties from Berlin streets, he has been aggressive in going after federal and state funds, and partnered with Joe Martin, the code enforcement officer, he has been making noticeable changes throughout the city. Phenomenal changes, in fact, the kind of changes Berlin has to increase exponentially to build a viable future.
At the council meeting on Monday Councilor Michael Rozak brought out a list of properties TKB Properties, the city’s private partner in the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, bought on the East Side since the program began. He had a number of concerns: about the targeted approach of the company, about the properties they were buying, and about the mortgage amounts. I had put my notebook away because it was the end of the night and the next item was adjournment, so I missed direct quotes of his comments, but suffice to say he didn’t sound impressed with the NSP. He said TKB seemed like it had something else going on here, beyond just rehabilitating properties.
It was a direct attack on the NSP, with a spreadsheet and allegations of cooking books. Mr. Caron’s face got pretty red as Councilor Rozak spoke, and it was clear he didn’t like what he was hearing.
And then Councilor Remillard stepped in.
Councilor Remillard is what I would call the swing-vote on the council. She does not seem to be standing on one side of the fence or the other on most issues: she was the only councilor who voted on the city seal willing to revisit the discussion, and she doesn’t seem vehemently in favor of Laidlaw or opposed. She is as close to a middle ground member as the council has, I suppose, and I’ve become accustomed to her rather accommodating manner.
But on Monday she acted with passion, something I don’t think I’ve ever seen her do. She jumped to Mr. Caron’s defense, listing off the benefits of the work he has done and what this project will do for the city. The renovated buildings will bring up the values of every property in the neighborhood, she said, and no one else would touch these eyesores without federal assistance. The idea that this is anything but a positive is wrong, she said, and any moves that could possibly derail the effort would be against the city’s interest. She championed his efforts for five minutes, and she scolded Councilor Rozak for bringing these issues up in such a way that could possibly scare the public. It seemed he found the issue she is passionate about.
Mr. Caron said he was supposed to sign the paperwork for the program tomorrow, but after comments from the mayor and several councilors he was concerned the program didn’t have their support.
I sat at the press table with the reporter for the daily paper and we kept looking at each other. I’ve been reporting on this program for a year, and she’s been doing it for even longer. This program is a godsend for Berlin, and if the city could get four more programs like it it wouldn’t be too much.
The city received $4.3 million, mostly to rehabilitate properties no one wants. The renovations will occur in targeted areas, and they will take place through a public/private partnership with TKB Properties. Eventually these properties will go back on the tax roles, somewhere most of them haven’t been for years. I’ve been writing and writing about this, and after every story I am blown away by how much Mr. Caron has been able to leverage for the city.
Mr. Caron was visibly agitated as he responded to the pointed questions, but luckily there were more voices in support of his efforts than in opposition. The mayor, Councilor Rozak and Councilor Ryan Landry pushed him, but Councilors Robert Danderson, David Poulin and Tom McCue sang his praises and defended the program. The rock star quote is direct from Councilor Poulin.
But it was Councilor Remillard who made the real impression. She wasn’t going to stand by to watch the council dismantle the NSP. She was ready to fight, and she stepped up the moment it looked like Mr. Caron’s years of work were about to evaporate. She made a plea that rallied the council, and though there were only three people in the audience (Mr. Caron being one of them, and Bobby Haggart being another) she turned the tide of rhetoric from opposition to support for Mr. Caron. Before she spoke it was like watching a train wreck. I could see Mr. Caron getting flustered, and it seemed his work was about to get ripped apart.
The crash, however, was narrowly averted. Thank you, Conductor Remillard.