As a kid, I grew up in a household of “activists.” That’s what my parents were called anyway. It never occurred to me then, or now, that they were anything out of the ordinary. For is it activism or one’s duty to shine the light on a problem that lies inside of the community?
In the mill town where I am from, my father was a family doctor and my mother a nurse. Together, the two cared for generations of people who began to show up at an alarming rate with extremely rare types of cancers. Wanting to understand this phenomenon better led to the discovery of a dioxin contamination that was produced by the mill. A by-product of the bleaching process in papermaking, it’s a severe carcinogen also found in the notorious Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange. All day long, they put out a large pool of muddy dioxin-laced sludge right out in the open. Without good management regulations at that time, it was disposed of by being dumped into the rivers, buried on mountaintops and burned close by. The geography of the area made for a noxious smog that hung over the valley like an impending death sentence.
When my hometown was later dubbed “CancerValley,” you’d think it to be enough to wake even the staunchest of cynics. But it wasn’t. The industry scurried about to downplay the statistics and public officials obliged. “Those damn elitist activists,” they’d say with their heads buried halfway in the sands.
How does one get away with such a thing?
The people’s needs are simple. They want a job that best utilizes their skill set, have a roof over their head, food on the table and a good education for their children. With jobs scarce in most rural places, a lack of alternatives allows for easy management of a problem like this. Too many inquiries and demands could encourage a large employer to leave. The protests could be overridden with nostalgia. “Our town will prosper as it always has.” Even as it slowly bled to death.
Now thirty years later, in fact the town is mostly dead. Many of the mill workers are brought in who lack a connection to the history and spirit that once was. The wealthy are no longer professionals. They are those who have the means to gobble up foreclosed properties to use as Section 8 housing.
A cautionary tale.
I turned out to be an artist. Things that the average person fears are just a part of ordinary life for me. That fearlessness and a knack for organizing make for one hell of a tool chest. Four years after moving into this adopted city of mine and shortly after becoming a mom, I became what they call a “community organizer” or “activist” I suppose. What I came to find was a gaping hole between the people and City Hall that was as disconcerting as it was overwhelming. Over the years and with the help of many volunteers and good souls, close to 50 initiatives both large and small were selected and diligently worked upon that would serve the public for a long time to come. Capacity was built for positive change. Educational efforts of all sorts (kingstoncitzens.org), Rail Trails, Urban Agriculture, African-American History projects and more were forged.
I’ve been dismayed by recent events in Kingston. The decisions and reactions of our mayor have disappointed me, but it’s not something I haven’t already seen in Kingston’s recent past. On first blush, I find my inner dialogue to be focused on our public servant’s failings. But the truth is, our collective lack of knowledge and disinterest in how our local government works is to blame.
Starting from the top down, Kingston has what is known as a “strong mayor” form of government. That means that whoever fills that seat has full administrative authority. You vote them into office via your party of choice, and it can in essence be anyone at all that will run a $36.8 million dollar budget, be responsible for a population of about 24,000 people and an entire aging citywide infrastructure.
They alone hire department heads and appoint membership to all of the city’s internal committees without any oversight. Believe it or not, that is how our charter currently reads. They might choose between casting a net to hire the most qualified candidates, or instead, select those who have helped them to get elected into office. As we have recently witnessed, the latter approach has led to an unprecedented number of firings.
Take a look sometime at the City of Kingston’s charter and read Article IV: “Mayor “General Powers and Duties.” The executive duties are light, as it would be unconstitutional to place requirements on an elected official. Is that any way to run a city?
It would be in the public’s best interest to have a discussion on the benefits of a “City Manager” form of government, which would allow for specific qualifications to be expected by the one hired to manage a city like ours. Twenty years ago, for a hot minute Kingston actually had such a thing. It was a hard-earned effort that was forged by a group of active citizens with the support of the chamber of commerce. There is an article written by Tom Benton that the Kingston Times published describing how it all came to light. (Editor’s note: That’s posted at kingstoncitizens.org) Prior to it, Kingston had a “weak mayor” form of government where the Mayor primarily would show up for ribbon cuttings. Their hard work was dashed by T.R. Gallo, who petitioned at the last minute to reverse the “city manager” process (before he himself ran for mayor) and furthermore, strengthening the mayor’s role to what it is today.
If done correctly, a “city manager” would diminish the power of party lines by placing more responsibility on a larger body of elected officials, and therefore placing more control in the hands of the people. I like that.
We could also stand to request that our council take up the charter to re-define job descriptions of appointed officials at City Hall. Arguably, some of those who fill those roles today really aren’t qualified. The age-old descriptions are partially why.
As for our council, how about requiring that those newly elected take a course in civics and in Kingston government? (New school board trustees get mandatory training.) Or how about term limits with a maximum of two terms? What are the reasons for not wanting to “mix it up” by creating these limits? Are they sound, or do they only support a political party’s desire to control the local landscape?
Kingston is in the midst of rewriting its citywide comprehensive plan, a process that hasn’t been undertaken since 1961. They are calling it “Kingston 2025” and it’s meant to act as a road map for creating a resilient and sustainable community in the next 12 years. That’s entirely possible given the efforts of a good number of initiatives that have been underway for some time. Kingston citizens, get in there. Give your input and ask that they update it every five years.
Let the past be the past and learn from it. City government is ours. What is necessary to make things run in today’s climate is different than what it was a decade ago. Longer. Be inquisitive, stay current and together make the changes that are needed.
(Martin is the founder of www.kingstoncitizens.org and the former executive director of the Kingston Land Trust. She is a touring musician and lives in Kingston with her family.)