Public vote was denied

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Dear Editor,
A few individuals opposing the Streetscape initiative decided not to trust the democratic process of voting. Apparently they feared they would lose. So they resorted instead to threats, rage and a promise to tear the community apart if they didn’t get their way. The Town Council, in order to avoid such a damaging scenario, agreed to take Streetscape off the ballot.
That means Ridgway will not get the needed infrastructure improvements, we will not bring new jobs and businesses to town with an improved Clinton Street, and—most importantly—the people will not be allowed to vote on this initiative.
The Streetscape committee spent over a year and hundreds of hours of volunteer time educating ourselves about this project, then held several public meetings airing every point of view—often heatedly, took surveys and talked one-on-one to scores of citizens (particularly business owners) to explain the project and to ascertain public opinion.
It appeared that the majority of people want these improvements and are willing to pay their share of the tax increase but that some business owners are very concerned about the impact of that tax on their enterprises—a legitimate concern, which we shared with the Town Council.
The Council in response whittled $800,000 off the $3.5 million original cost and thought they could reduce the price even more with state funds. That was not satisfactory to those individuals who felt they—not the public—should have the right to determine this issue.
They demanded a private meeting with the Mayor and Town Manager, which they got and used to threaten mayhem. Knowing that the Council had only one more day in which to consider the initiative, the Mayor called a special Council meeting to give these individuals yet another chance to state their case—a meeting at which only opponents and press were present.
At that meeting, the Council was subjected to a diatribe—promises of picketing, law suits, investigations into whether notices had been legally correct, negative press (further undermining Ridgway’s attempt to build a promising future), plastering the town and outskirts with negative signs, and every sort of harassment of the town and voters they could imagine.
While trying to influence public opinion is a basic civic right, threatening to do so in a punitive manner and for the clear purpose of bullying the Council into denying a public vote is reprehensible. It is not an honest attempt to educate people about the pros and cons of a measure—it is an attempt to prevent the public from having a voice.
Those who spoke to the Council on Sept. 5 said they feared town “retribution” for their position. The only retribution they need fear is from their customers and not because of their position but because of their tactics—deliberately undermining the democratic process with threats designed to forestall a vote. Many of us will not financially support those who promote and condone such behavior.

Paula James
Co-Chair, Ridgway Streetscape Committee