I believe in the wisdom, grit and courage of ordinary people

To the Editor:

A public-comment meeting on the Westerlo hydrofracking report scheduled for February was cancelled hours before its start time because of heating problems. It was rescheduled for March 27 but four of the five members of the town board were no-shows.

Only the supervisor, Dick Rapp, was there, repeating excuses for some of the others. The entire hydrofracking committee was absent as well. No public meeting was conducted or rescheduled.

At this point, my concern about the hydrofracking report has escalated to include concern about public trust. Citizens have a right to expect our town boards to serve the public interest with fairness and to manage public resources properly.

The concept of public trust dates back to the origins of democratic government and its most basic idea: that within the public lies the true power and future of a society; therefore, whatever trust the public places in its officials must be respected.

Westerlo does nothing to inspire public trust or participation in town government and many people have given up. Zero attendance at meetings would suit them just fine. That way, they could conduct public business insulated from public knowledge and involvement.

With one very shaky exception, I have no trust or confidence in the Westerlo Town Board.

Here are only a few things I have witnessed in recent months:

— January 2014: The highway department employees do a great job taking care of our roads and deserve to have decent benefits and a living wage. There was a squabble about whether they should get the modest increase proposed in the new budget.

The outcome of the vote was unclear at the meeting. The minutes did not mention the raises.

Other residents were also unclear as to what had happened. It was only after speaking with the supervisor, who said they had gotten the increase, that we understood the raise had passed by a vote of 3 to 2.

Outcomes of votes are often unclear. The meetings should be videotaped, archived, and available for public review.

— February 2014: At the January organizational meeting, we learned that there was a change in the planning-board chairmanship. We all thought the chairperson must have resigned. We later learned that she had been dismissed.

When a resident questioned the dismissal, we were told by Bill Bichteman that it was done “on good authority.”

Turned out, though, that no one ever spoke to the chairperson about her side of the story! What happened to innocent until proven guilty? It also turned out that at least two of the councilmen didn't know about the dismissal, so it was never discussed by the full board.

— And, finally, the hydrofracking report. In my opinion, it is indefensible.

My detailed comments are already public record and the Enterprise editorial describing it as “useless” was right on.

Our decision-makers and residents need a report that clearly defines how shale gas development, which includes hydrofracking, could affect our town. Such a report would provide supporting information that addresses those issues without advocacy and with careful attention to and disclosure of bias.

This report doesn’t do that.

It deliberately excludes information that would provide a more complete picture of potential impacts of hydrofracking here. I say “deliberately” because information supplied by residents that would correct some of the deficits in the report have not been included in the revision.

Much of the information excluded from this report is essential for understanding the real costs, in health, dollars and cents, and quality of life, for the people of Westerlo.

For example: impacts of air and water pollution; effects on mortgages, insurance, rents, and property values; state-sanctioned confiscation of property for use by hydrofracking companies; etc.

The town board has stonewalled, stalled, and avoided open and honest public discussion of this report for almost a year, preceded by months of resistance by the original committee to open its meetings to public involvement.

This pattern is obviously meant to discourage public participation in government, but it’s not unique to the issue of hydrofracking, as many residents have privately told me.

One of the problems with the board is that too many people are appointed by insiders and later run unopposed in rubber-stamp elections. I hope, in the future, the people of our town will have a real choice of people who have a well-developed sense of public duty and public trust.

To the town board: Apologize for your unprofessional tactics and for again wasting public time and goodwill. Educate yourselves on the duties of public office and fair governance. Avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Include, as respected partners, willing volunteers. And get on with the business of regaining public trust through honesty, efficiency, transparency, accountability, good policy choices and positive outcomes. Take a look at “Regaining the Public’s Trust,” by G. Edward DeSeve | Dec. 21, 2011 (http://www.governing.com/columns/mgmt-insights/public-trustgovernment), if you want a place to start.

And, to the good people of Westerlo, a few words of encouragement from a man who salvaged wisdom in the worst of circumstances. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, wrote:

“Everything can be taken from a man [or woman] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances...” — Man's Search for Meaning

This is an empowering affirmation of the human spirit.

People are discounted (and worse) by many politicians at all levels of government, but I believe in the wisdom, grit and courage of ordinary people. If getting along means going along, we all lose. Keep on truckin’.

Thank you for listening to me.

Dianne Sefcik

Editor’s note: See related story (Jan. 23, 2014, "Squabble erupts as salaries are set") at Back Issues, at altamontenterprise.com.

“We're not trying to stonewall anybody that I know of,” Westerlo Supervisor Richard Rapp responded through The Enterprise.

Rapp and Councilman William Bichteman had spoken about Planning Board Chairwoman Dorothy Verch's replacement by Doyle Shaver before Rapp made the adjustment during the January re-organizational meeting, which was approved, 3 to 2, with Alfred Field and Anthony Sherman opposed and Rapp, Bichteman, and Councilman Theodore Lounsbury voting in favor.

At the February meeting, the board voted, 4 to 1, with Bichteman opposed, to reinstate Verch. Bichteman said then that, based on others' reports, he felt Verch improperly advocated for applicants. Lounsbury said at the meeting he had thought Verch resigned.


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