September 8, 2014

Time for city leaders to -- shocking idea -- lead

I had an interesting conversation today with a longtime city government watcher who confessed to confusion about what's the best way to proceed with downtown.
Like most people in the city these days, he was pretty down on Renaissance and its plans for Depot Square, especially the $6 million or more the Long Island developer wants taxpayers to chip in toward construction of the first building.
But the part that struck me in our talk was something else: the idea that Bristol is not having the sort of wide-ranging, deep conversation it should about how to proceed.
That's clearly true.
What really hit me, though, was his analysis of what's gone wrong. He said the city's leaders have ducked their duty, that instead of taking charge of the project and guiding the community toward an understanding of the issues involved, the details of the plans and the realities of any alternatives they have instead said almost nothing and done less.
He said the city would be far, far better off if its elected leaders took the helm and tried to steer the ship.
As it is, what debate and discussion exists is mostly stirred up by Shawn Ruest, an ardent foe of the project whose view of the government's potential role is deeply skeptical and narrow. I don't think Ruest would disagree much with that, though it's fair to say, too, that he's tried to delve into the project on his own to figure out what's going on. That's admirable on any level.
What hasn't happened, however, is to have the city's leaders grab hold of the issue and lay out the case for -- or against -- the Renaissance plan. They have, by and large, taken a hands-off approach, as if it was all somebody's else's idea.
What the veteran government watcher wants is for Mayor Ken Cockayne and the City Council to hold public meeting after public meeting, preferably in a high school auditorium and taped for Nutmeg TV, to explore the project plans and the issues that surround them.
He said they should be listening to the public's concerns at these sessions but also guiding the discussion toward some sort of community consensus on whether to move ahead and how.
They should be leading, he said, instead of cowering in the background and talking about the biggest issue facing Bristol only when they're in closed-door executive sessions.
Moreover, he argued, the history of Bristol shows that in the end, the public should vote on the issue. He said every important decision ever made in the town that went right was done by referendum, not the maneuverings of politicians trying to keep their deeds in the dark.
He pointed to the referendum that led to Memorial Boulevard and its school, to the preservation of the Hoppers-Birge Pond Nature Preserve and the switch to an elected Board of Education.
Whatever the right course is, he said, it's up to the city's leaders to point the way and make the case. If they can't, that says a lot all by itself about the merits.
The bottom line? The city's elected officials need to speak up. They've been too quiet for too long.
They're killing the project by their silence. But that's not how a democracy should work. Whatever the outcome for Renaissance and its plan, it should come after rousing and thoughtful public debate.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...


This is the best commentary on the state of affairs in downtown Bristol that I have read in a long time. Please consider publishing some sort of article in the Press to this effect. We need direction on the project, and maybe, just maybe, someone will read your commentary and realize they should do something. Bristol deserves so much better than what it's currently getting.
-William J. Cunningham