Following is a history of my involvement in City of Milton politics, starting at the beginning. It is my own Tale of Two Cities. My experience is instructional, but will likely be of interest to only those who care enough to invest the time to understand the back story to Milton politics. Suffice to say, things in Milton are very often not what they seem. And unfortunately, the reality is that underneath Milton’s politics and government is a lot of ugliness—e.g., cronyism, dishonesty, unfairness, lack of accountability, incompetence, and insufficient transparency. 90+% of this history is documented through emails, texts, voicemails, and other documentation. My aim, and certainly my hope, is that my story will help citizens to better understand city government and engage more productively in city governance, while avoiding the many pitfalls that I encountered. In telling this story, my purpose is not to exact revenge on anyone, but to rather achieve a certain measure of redemption. Laura Bentley figures prominently in my story because we were partners in a (failed) effort to reform governance in Milton . . . my story and Laura’s story are hopelessly entangled. And frankly I do not care who I offend by telling my story, for my obligation has always been to the community, not specific politicians. While the “revolution” (the term Laura and I used to describe our quest) ultimately failed in Milton, I am nevertheless optimistic that Milton can achieve good governance . . . that Milton can become (to borrow a phrase from President Reagan) that “shining city on the hill” . . . and that Milton can achieve (to borrow a phrase from Jimmy Carter) “government that is as good as its people.” To become that great city or to achieve that good government first requires citizen education to facilitate engagement. My humble hope is that my story will help to provide that education and foster that engagement.
Over time, I will add sections to this page, so please return for new chapters. And please contact me with questions or comments.
First Taste of Milton Politics: Gating of Crooked Creek
Only much later in life (in my 50s) did I (finally) realize the importance of local government in the community’s quality of life. And like most people, I only engaged because I became aware of a nearby issue that impacted me: the City’s abandonment of the roads in Crooked Creek and the subsequent gating of the subdivision, thereby closing a public road that had been used by Miltonites for 20+ years (and transferring a citizen-owned asset worth millions of dollars to an HOA). I called the City and was advised (by the Communications Director) to speak at the upcoming Council meeting at City Hall. I came, I spoke, wrote a subsequent letter of protest (that was published in the Milton Herald), and went back to normal life—mostly forgetting about City government. Following is a link to my letter to the Milton Herald.
That was late 2014. (More about Crooked Creek gating in another blog post.) This experience primed me for my later deep engagement in city politics and government . . . I fell down the rabbit hole into Milton’s quasi-version of a dystopian Wonderland . . . where “logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead.” (“Go Ask Alice,” The Jefferson Airplane)
Second Act Begins: Opposition to Conservation Subdivision Ordinance – Recruitment By Laura Bentley
Nearly a year later, September 2015, local politics crept back into my world. I became aware of a proposed Conservation Subdivision Ordinance (CSO). I was receiving emails from Julie Bailey, who was against it, and Preserve Rural Milton (PRM), who was for it. I was not able to devine the truth from these emails. But then I read an interview with a land-owner who was crowing about how the CSO was going to make him wealthy. He complained that developers considered his land trash because of its topography and that the CSO would allow him to cram houses into the parts of his land that could be profitably developed; the remaining unbuildable “garbage” land would be claimed as “green space.” It was then that a light went off . . . the CSO was a gift to developers and to owners of marginal land that would significantly increase density in Milton. It was a case of concentrated benefits for Special Interests, with the costs being socialized among the remaining population of Milton . . . a theme that gets repeated on a regular basis on Milton, no matter who sits on Council. I again wrote a letter to the Milton Herald that was published.
This letter put me on the radar of a few community activists that were fighting the CSO. One day, an envelope appeared in my mailbox that contained a packet of emails among City Council members, city staff, and some citizens. (Only 2 years later and after she was elected, did Laura Bentley admit to putting the packet in my mailbox, although two former/current Council members have taken credit/blame for the same delivery.) The emails described a zoning process that had run amuck and further stoked my interest in the CSO. Then, a few weeks later, I received a voice mail from Laura Bentley. Attached is the audio file.
I returned Laura’s call, and she convinced me to speak at Council. Unfortunately, I arrived late and was not allowed to speak. However, I did listen to the Council discussion about the CSO. After the Council meeting, I met with 3 activists opposing the CSO and told them that based on the discussion, I was certain that the CSO was going to be passed by Council. However, figuring we had 3 weeks to change (a lot of) minds, I decided I would devote my efforts full-time to defeating the CSO. (I had just concluded a project, so had the time to dedicate to the cause.)
Organizing the Milton Coalition
The first order of business was to organize the anti-CSO campaign. The CSO opposition was a loose collection of individuals. So I set about recruiting some of the opposition speakers from the previous City Council meetings and a few other citizens who were suggested to me. Over a few days, I pulled together a group of 8 citizens, including myself and Laura Bentley, and I named our group The Milton Coalition. It turned out to be a great group of citizens—smart and dedicated to the person. We worked through email, text, and phone.
I developed a logo for our campaign. I also muddled my way through creating a blog and created a simple petition: “I am opposed to the Milton Conservation Subdivision Ordinance.” Following is a link to the petition. Eventually over 800 citizens would sign the petition.
However, because we anticipated that PRM would post a counter-petition (and they had a huge email list to generate support for it), we initially operated the petition in stealth mode—that is, we had friendlies sign it and requested they not to yet publicize the petition. My calculation was that we needed to get a 100-signature head start on PRM to create some momentum before going public with the petition. Also, I wanted to convince former Council Member Julie Bailey (Laura introduced me to her) to back my petition and use her email list to generate support. I also began scheduling in-person meetings with Council members and in a few cases, cornered them at the ground-breaking for the new Milton City Hall. I eventually had face-to-face conversations with 6 of 7 council members. (I didn’t meet with Burt Hewitt as I was assured by Laura that he was solidly against the CSO.) Other Milton Coalition members were also meeting with Council members. Lastly, I created an anti-CSO flyer and walked neighborhoods distributing them.
It was at this time that I developed a close partnership with Laura Bentley. I was ignorant of City politics, so Laura was my tutor. City government and politics were quite new to me. I had never posted a petition; I had never blogged; I had never met any member of Council. There was good political chemistry between Laura and me, and we became fast friends; for two years, we would talk by phone nearly every day, usually multiple times. I think it would be quite difficult to effectively and sustainedly engage in political advocacy without a partner, and it wouldn’t be much fun either. Of course, Laura and I would call on others to help on particular issues. However, we were the nucleus of the movement for change in Milton. We followed all of the issues, attended nearly every City Council meeting and attended many meetings of City committees (e.g., Planning Commission; Board of Zoning Appeals).
Laura and I complemented each other well. Laura engaged on nearly every issue; I was more selective but went deeper with my research and analysis. Laura was more hands-on and worked the phones incessantly (to get people to meetings, etc.). I focused more on the blog and petitions . . . I felt these platforms would reach broader audiences and ensure our supporters were well-informed and highly committed. Laura operated more from intuition; I delved more into facts and data. We both worked hard; City government became a full-time job (and then some) for both of us.