Citizen Can

It started with a dispute over taxes. Or, rather, tax ordinance. My husband’s employer didn’t withhold city taxes because the shop was not in NECAA city limits, but we paid the full tax bill every April–never delinquent, paid in full. Bureaucracy being what it is, the city required we file an income estimate every quarter. No taxes collected, just the filing. Hubby let it slide–just paperwork, right?–and we got an official you’d-better-file-or-we’ll-sue-you letter. I kid you not.

We filed. But not before complaining loudly to our then-city commissioner: “This is how you treat your residents? No wonder folks are leaving the city! The taxes aren’t even due and you’ll sue us?! Senseless red tape! We’re outta here!”

His response?

“If you don’t like the status quo, work to change it. We need people like you to stay.”

A year later when a developer threatened apartments in the empty property behind our cul-de-sac, I couldn’t reach our area’s neighborhood association: the website hadn’t been updated in three years and the president’s phone number was disconnected. A neighborhood icon (also known as Mr. Wonderful in Our Fair City) did a little sleuthing. What he turned up? The neighborhood association president had moved to the ‘burbs–and tossed out all the association records from the previous several years.

So we tag-teamed with a few neighbors to fight a proposed development in the field bordering our cul-de-sac. And the commission listened to over 100 neighbors who came out to protest.

Then another neighbor, Liz, and I agreed to meet once a month. Technically, it might have been a coup because we called ourselves the Board right away. But the previous Board members were AWOL and we had dreams, so all’s fair. Any neighbor willing to say “Hey!” while walking the dog was fair game: “Want to serve on the Board?” Anyone willing to distribute newsletters was in: “Our next meeting is Thursday the 15th.” Someone dug up by-laws. We filed for 501c3 status. More folks signed on and after a year we had what the by-laws said was a quorum.

And then the fun started. Liz is a visionary. She saw the possibility in our nine square mile corner of the world and she knocked on just about every city door, it seemed: city planning, city manager, parks department, commissioners, law enforcement, and the board of education. I was the Mutt to her Jeff; the Bert to her Ernie, the Sam to her Frodo. (Actually, I’m a pretty good note-taker and question-asker, if I do say so myself.) When second developer threatened yet another property, she called the a local news. Then she got down to business and bent the ear of nonprofits and private investors.

Board members knocked on doors and asked local businesses to pitch in. We distribute 1500 newsletters twice each year. Put on our big boy pants and bought liability insurance. We throw a heck of a National Night Out with fire trucks and the SWAT team, face-painting and hot-dogs and organized an annual plant exchange. We adopted a fire house. Our annual meeting is well-attended and we even have a professionally designed logo and tag line for marketing. Who knows? There may be tee shirts in our future! And we finally have an active website again.

I finally get it. I understand that there’s no magic wand a government official can wave to make our cities and neighborhoods better–there’s just a lot of knocking on doors, talking to business owners, networking with city officials, and boring meetings. There’s no fairy dust that brings neighbors together like that 70’s Coke commercial–there’s just sweating under a tent and bagging popcorn for National Night Out, talking through a Powerpoint at meetings, handing out lollipops at the Plinko booth at a BBQ. And more boring meetings.

I’m tired of the “What’s-the-point-I-can’t-even-watch-the-news” naysayers. Don’t give me an “I-just-don’t-care-anymore.” The truth? Our elected officials have less impact on our lives than one might imagine. They don’t live next door–they don’t help dig out snow-covered fire hydrants–they can’t find lost dogs–and they certainly don’t care if you’ve got apartments in your backyard. Although I’ve stepped back from the board for a time, I’ll still find a way to contribute to Our Fair City. There will always be envelopes to stuff, doors to knock, and meetings to attend.

So enough with the whining already. Get out there, get busy. Roll up those sleeves. Make the world a better place–street-by-street–one neighborhood at a time. 

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