“Foundations” is a monthly series examining the fundamentals of local government, talking about how government works and how it impacts people’s lives at the local level. This week, …
“Foundations” is a monthly series examining the fundamentals of local government, talking about how government works and how it impacts people’s lives at the local level. This week, “Foundations” takes a look at the role of local residents and activists in shaping their communities.
Running a town or a township involves decision-making on a lot of levels, from the nitty-gritty of day-to-day operations to the big-picture planning for the future involved in the process of creating a comprehensive plan.
Much of that work is accomplished by elected or compensated members of local government: town board members, town employees, professional consultants and the like. Equally important to the proper functioning of a town are the contributions of its volunteer citizens, whether through officially appointed positions like planning board or zoning board of appeals membership or through their individual activism.
Contributions from a wide swath of the community are essential to ensure that town planning reflects community needs. According to planner Peter Manning, hearing from the community is especially important in a region like the Upper Delaware, which is experiencing growing pains as its population shifts.
The difference in perspectives between an “original” agricultural population and a population of “newcomers” who moved up from the city during the pandemic makes it crucial to involve a range of citizens in the planning process, said Manning. “People come from different backgrounds and have different ideals, so the more participation from the different [backgrounds], the better it’s going to balance out.”
The Town of Tusten, which Manning helped to construct its comprehensive plan, accomplished that goal through a survey that was sent out to the town’s property owners. Out of 1,252 surveys sent out, 401 came back, a response rate of 32 percent.
Contributions from members of the community can inform the work that the town board accomplishes, and community activism can lead to sustained—and sustainable—initiatives.
Tusten resident Brandi Merolla chairs the Tusten Energy Committee (TEC), a town-appointed committee formed out of the organizing energy that accomplished a fracking ban in 2011. The TEC meets monthly to discuss and implement clean, green solutions for the town and for the planet.
The TEC has accomplished a number of tangible benefits. It brought into being a town solar array, LED lighting for the town’s streetlamps and a food waste composting program—the high solids organic waste recycling system with electrical output, or “HORSE”—that produces both liquid compost and electricity. A soft-plastic recycling program has not only diverted 14 tons of plastic away from the town’s roadsides and landfills, but it has also supplied the town with seven benches made of recycled soft plastic.
“People are proud of this community effort to make Tusten an environmentally friendly town,” said Merolla.
Other towns around Tusten have pushed for sustainability as well. Sustainable Bethel is a committee formed by the Town of Bethel to advise the town board on conservation and sustainability initiatives; it has helped conduct energy audits of the town’s buildings, helped craft and enact a solar installation law for the town and pushed for a community solar project that will open on the town’s capped landfill later this year.
Besides residents’ participation in grassroots initiatives like the TEC and Sustainable Bethel, having a corps of thoughtful residents passionate about their community is a critical element to growing a town thoughtfully, Merolla added. The work accomplished by sustainability and other local advocates energizes the governing figures in towns and townships, pushing them to remain accountable to the people who elected them.
“The people’s voice is extremely important,” said Merolla. “We must not forget that elected officials work for us, and when they don’t listen, we raise our voices a bit louder so that they can understand the will of the people.”
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