Not Enough Space

The entire city of Berlin should have come to the council meeting tonight. It didn’t clear up as much as it should have, but it posed so many interesting discussions I could write an entire paper out of it.

George Sansoucy, the utility appraiser that assesses the city’s big, hard to assess properties, gave an hour and a half presentation. That alone could have been four stories (I had 400 to 500 words, and I had to squeeze everything else in too). It’s too bad there weren’t more people there to hear it.

He recommended the city get a payment in lieu of taxes, or a PILT, from the utility companies proposing projects in the city. His rational was that it provides a consistent revenue, and that the city could get good revenues for years, even after the assets have sunk in value. The city may start out getting a little less, but in thirty years the city winds up getting more than they would from the assessed value of a worn out biomass plant. Long term planning; that sounds exactly like what Berlin ought to be doing.

He also said there is no hope for district heating unless oil goes up three fold, but some of his comments about plant efficiency didn’t make much sense. Bill Gabler, from Clean Power, was there, and they were geeking out on technical specks (in addition to being an assessor, Mr. Sansoucy is a professional engineer) but their figures weren’t lining up. There was talk of efficiency, and how some plants are efficient at 60 percent, and others at 20 percent, but the engineers in the room couldn’t agree. So while that conversation was interesting it certainly wasn’t helpful in determining the possibility of such development.

And then there was the race, which isn’t even going to make it into the paper. After the fire department troubles hiring an assistant fire chief and Mr. Sansoucy, I didn’t have room to spare, but it appears a reality show is coming to Berlin to run a road rally, thanks to the efforts of representative Paul Ingersol. You can check out the organization here. The council had a few questions, but they seemed enthusiastic, because the event would get people into the city.

I was just having a discussion about how the city and the county need events, both on LPJ and recently in Berlin. This is perfect, but it needs more. Berlin has multiple petro-fueled events, from an ATV rally to a motorcycle rally to a rally race to an old car show. Sometimes I wonder if the North Country is trying to prop up some Emir in Kuwait. The events are key, but somebody has to start proposing something different. Or, to put it better, let’s have all these events, but let’s also try branching out. What about a film festival? Or multi-stage bicycle race? These aren’t things Berlin is familiar with, but maybe the city needs to look beyond the low-hanging fruit.

But I digress. The police department also stopped by to talk about replacing a telephone line to a radio tower that connects their dispatch center with their patrol cars. They pay $500 a month for the connection, which has gone out three times since December. It is antiquated, the police chief said, and the department needs council approval to shift funds around their capital improvement budget to pay for an upgrade. Again, that won’t make it in the paper because of space issues.

I look at the agenda each Monday and tell my editor how long I think my story will be for the council meeting. I am invariably wrong. There is always more going on at council than I can cover, and I often only get small parts and pieces. It’s a shame, but luckily residents have multiple sources from with to get their news.

But recently I’ve begun to doubt the ability of any paper, mine or otherwise, to truly do justice to these meetings. There is just too much going on for me to cover in 500, or even 5,000 words. I try my best, but there is no substitute for being there.

The turnout, however, is always low. I spoke to one man this weekend who is often there, and he said he doesn’t think the council values resident input. I disagree. I’ve seen councilors change their minds after hearing strong words during the public comments. What Berlin needs is engaged citizens, particularly those willing to share their views with their representatives.

It becomes like a soap opera, or maybe like “Desperate Housewives,” when you go week to week, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. I have grown to know and like the characters, to enjoy their personal quirks and to watch their interactions. They are nine people struggling together and against one another to right the listing ship that is Berlin. To pop in on one episode might seem boring, and some days things never pick up, but overall Monday nights are entertaining as well as informative at city hall. It surprises me that people would prefer to watch television, when real drama that affects them is going on so nearby.

So this is my impassioned plea: give it a few shots. Make it out to council, and not just for one episode. I know people who read LPJ care about politics, the city, and raising the bar on the debate, but most Monday nights no one is there. If even just for a few weeks the auditorium was packed, what a difference it would make.

Incidentally, that makes for the best sunshine. The press’ first obligation is to the people, but here is an opportunity for the people to bypass the media. Even if I could always get it right I don’t have room for it all. Instead, just show up. If you miss a week, grab the paper, and I’ll fill you in on what you missed. But unless you know the characters, the plot twists and the progression, my explanation will never be enough. It takes more investment than that. So come on out and enjoy your public officials. You are their bosses, come make sure they’re doing what you require.

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