There is, however, a case to be made that responsibility for this crisis must also be shared by citizens. This position is expressed in just a few words by Mayor Mark Berentsen at a town meeting in October 2012, when he asked the assembled residents, “Where were you in 2006?” This is when the original development project was first proposed, featuring 190 luxury homes, a swimming pool and a golf course. Since then for various reasons, the project morphed into its current incarnation, a cluster development with hundreds of townhouse units. This project, a majority of local residents clearly deem unacceptable.
It is certainly laudable that citizens from the Townships of Mamakating, Wallkill and Crawford, and the Villages of Bloomingburg and Wurtsboro, have become involved and more empowered in local governance since July 2012 when the Rural Community Coalition was formed around this issue: “to hold its elected officials to the highest standards in accordance with the law, to work proactively for transparency and inclusively in their governance and to represent the will of the people who elected them with the goal of maintaining the character of the community in its growth.”
Yet, if citizens of these towns and villages had been involved since 2006 by keeping a routine and watchful eye on the planning and approval process, which resulted in approval in 2010, the current crisis might have been avoided.
Generally, local governments try to obey the rules: meetings are held on a regular schedule, municipalities post all legally required announcements in a local newspaper, and avoid meeting in secret to discuss public business. These are matters informed citizens should know about. However, town meetings, planning board meetings, water and sewer meetings, school board meetings are often routine and boring, and this is why citizen attendance is commonly sparse at best. Ruefully, citizens all too often discover that they come to the process too late and are therefore stuck with top-down development planning and project decisions. The lesson they learn is very simple—in a democracy, vigilance is required.
In the old days, when students were taught civics lessons in school, they learned about the rights and duties of citizens and how government works. Today civics is no longer taught; its lessons are learned in the world of hard knocks. Perhaps it is time to teach civic education once again.
[Editor’s note: For interesting reading and a toolkit for learning about civic education, here is a good resource: www.pgexchange.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=133&Itemid=122]