Following is a letter sent to District 1 Candidates For City Council thanking them for their strong stances advocating for Town Hall meetings with City Council (and separately with appointed City leadership). Included is advice to the winner, based on my experience with city government/politics and the lessons I learned . . . often the hard way.
Ms. Verhoff and Ms. Tucker:
First, thank you for both responding to my Town Hall challenge. And more importantly, thank you for taking a strong stand to advocate for Town Hall meetings. Beyond the ballot box, it is important to provide myriad and substantive mechanisms to citizens for holding government accountable. One of you will have the honor and privilege of representing citizens on council. Whoever it is, I hope you will advocate for other best practices for improving accountability, such as increased transparency—for example, making available in a consolidated document the voting and attendance records of council members.
More generally, I hope that you will focus more attention on good governance—i.e., how Milton is governed, with a focus on process and principles (vs. policy/outcomes). Good outcomes can only be achieved through good processes characterized by fairness, transparency, rigor, accountability, and honesty. Milton’s government—both council and staff—routinely deviate from principles of good governance . . . with predictable results: unnecessary community division and a loss of trust/confidence in government, often involving a diversion of precious resources.
Every major battle I have witnessed in Milton ultimately issued from gross failures in governance . . . and ignoring legitimate concerns of citizens. It is critical for council members and our staff to be proactive in engaging citizens—not just passively listening to the community, but actually providing mechanisms for citizens to engage in governance. Consent of the governed consists of much more than conducting clean elections; consent might begin at the ballot box, but it does not end there. Consent of the governed means securing the rights of citizens to participate in government . . . it means protecting and even encouraging the exercise of fundamental liberties, like freedoms of speech, assembly, and protest. We must make it easy for citizens to engage; the health of our republic depends on it. (I have been the target of multiple attempts to limit my exercise of my fundamental freedoms.)
Please also never forget that the collective wisdom of citizens always trumps the wisdom of any individual council member or even the council as a whole. A council member may have more data/information than citizens, but citizens are collectively wiser. A key responsibility of council members is to tap into the vast reservoir of community wisdom to improve our government, and ultimately, improve the community. I initially got involved in politics because I wanted to truly “shift power back to citizens,” but unfortunately power has actually shifted away from citizens over the past 4 years. Ultimately, your responsibility is to manifest the will of the community within the boundaries of the rule of law and through the application of good governance principles (including maximizing citizen engagement in governance).
Usually underrated as a virtue and always in short supply, courage is a necessity for success in representing citizens. The development industry has infiltrated our city government and has distorted politics in Milton. Powerful developers recruit candidates, manage/finance campaigns, and exert undue influence through their proxies. And yes, they buy influence in our city government. What is it they seek? Generally they seek higher intensity of use. For residential development, this usually means higher density enabled by sewer extension and granting of variances. An example is the subdivision across from Cambridge High School. For commercial development, it often means bastardizing use permits and again liberal granting of variances. An example is approval of the music venue at Birmingham Crossroads, which involved many unchallenged misrepresentations, a re-purposed festival use permit, and 12 variances . . . and egregious abuse of process and blatant disregard/disrespect for the legitimate concerns of nearby residents. You will have to display backbone in fending off Special Interests and their requests.
It is also important to put aside ego in the exercise of your duty of representing citizens. Take your duties seriously, but not personally. Do not follow the lead of many of your predecessors and wrap your identity up in city politics. Unfortunately, Milton politics often attracts the unaccomplished and the insecure in their sad and elusive quest for relevance and achievement.
In Milton, politicians have been routinely ejected office (or dissuaded from seeking re-election). To understand Milton politics requires a study of past divisive issues, such as: the CSO; the Ebenezer re-zonings; fights over community septic and sewer extension; approval of 28 variances and a bastardized use permit at Birmingham Crossroads; and the Painted Horse fiasco. Please invest the time to understand these issues and be careful not to buy into the political narratives (as I did) posited by Milton’s two warring factions (Lusk-Kunz and Moore-Bentley) that have been waging a war based on personality politics (rather than on policy or principles/process) since the City’s founding . . . to the detriment of the community. Be careful not to align with either faction. Both factions are pushing false storylines. They are only united in their mutual animus toward each other and their advocacy for the prerogatives of their Special Interests. And on issues of policy, there is really not a dime’s worth of difference between the two factions.
Above all, citizens must trust you. There is incredible power in the truth. Trust is foundational to good governance. Miltonites have not been shy about rejecting representatives that have lost their trust and confidence. Always remember that trust is hard to earn but easily lost. Say what you mean and do what you say. Make very clear to citizens the principles that you will apply to reach decisions. Make it very clear that you will respect your oath to uphold the law, especially local zoning laws.
My apologies for the long letter. I wanted to convey to both of you some of the lessons that I learned while immersed in city politics. Win or lose, I hope you will stay engaged in local government and encourage other citizens to engage. The quality of our local government is highly correlated with citizen engagement.
All the Best,