Wednesday, March 14, 2007
In Western Massachusetts, citizen groups use the web to network government accountability
Citizen groups rise up as public watchdogs
POSTED: Wednesday, March 14, 2007
By JEANETTE DeFORGE and SUZANNE McLAUGHLIN
The [Springfield, Mass.] Republican
After Wilbraham voters approved, by a tiny margin of votes, a referendum to increase property taxes, a group of citizens vowed that their concerns would never go unheard again. Three years later, the Concerned Citizens of Wilbraham has more than 100 members. They attend nearly every governmental meeting and report what they learned at the organization's monthly meetings. They also post information on their Web site.
The Wilbraham group is among the most organized watchdogs in the region - but across Western Massachusetts, from Agawam to Amherst and Warren to Ware, hundreds of regular citizens serve as unofficial government overseers. They speak about their concerns at public meetings, lobby local representatives, demand public records and religiously attend meetings, no matter how dull. "We take it very seriously. Our job isn't to yell and scream at people. A lot of times it is to put things on the table," said Robert L. Page, chairman of the Wilbraham group. "The public has the right to know all of this."
The group formed after proponents of a Proposition 2½ override won by 61 votes, or less than 0.1 percent of the 4,789 ballots cast. Members mobilized mostly to oppose an override if one was proposed the next year, but has done far more, said Allan Kinney, vice chairman. "We didn't say we would never support an override," Page said. "We just said we would not support one to fund the town operating budget." Now the goal is to have as much transparency in government as possible and ensure all residents have financial information available.
Throughout Western Massachusetts, private citizens get involved in watchdog movements for many reasons. Some do so because of a specific issue, while others, such as Christine L. Pilch, of Ware, are trying to improve government in general.
Pilch joined with about two dozen other people to try to reform Ware's town government by writing the town's first charter. The process is complicated. Residents started by collecting enough signatures to put a referendum on charter change on the ballot. Since then, the nine elected charter commission members have spent countless hours writing a charter. The final version will go to voters on April 9, said Pilch, who serves as chairwoman of the charter commission.
After reading newspaper articles and hearing stories, Pilch said, she was frustrated that the town - which increased in population by 3 percent from 2000 to 2005 - still was being run by part-time selectmen and she was not confident that tax dollars were being spent efficiently. "Rather than standing on the sidelines, I got frustrated enough to get involved," she said. Pilch said she is not a professional politician and her work will be done after the charter vote.
Statewide, private citizens file the vast majority of complaints with the Public Records Division of the Secretary of State's Office over denial of access to public records. Last year, it was 92 percent. Of the 319 complaints filed, 292 were from individual citizens, officials said. Complaints are wide-ranging, covering concerns about overcharging for public records, requests for executive session meeting minutes, petitions for credentials of public employees and even a few about e-mail. The Massachusetts City Solicitors and Town Counsel Association also receives a number of inquiries for information from private citizens.
It will not respond to a specific situation but will speak about laws, said James B. Lampke, executive director. "Our whole system of government is (predicated) on citizen participation, and having citizen involvement takes many forms," he said.
Northampton Mayor Mary Clare Higgins said she receives many e-mails and letters from residents who don't attend meetings but have concerns or want to voice opinions. "I think in order to have citizen involvement you have to have a responsible and diligent press," so people can be informed, she said. While input is welcome and many concerns are addressed, there are times when Higgins said she has referred residents to state or federal government. When people tell her they disagree with her positions, she explains her reasoning. "There are some people who I've had to say to them we have to agree to disagree," she said. "If you feel so strongly I didn't make the right decision, you shouldn't vote for me."
Chicopee residents Sandra A. Peret and Lisa L. Bienvenue, who are sisters, got involved in their city's government because of school busing problems, but continued to attend School Committee and Board of Aldermen meetings long after the issue was resolved. Their continuing interest was partly sparked by an alderman who advised them to return with a group and "raise a ruckus" about busing. "That irritated me. Every individual should have an impact on the government. It's cavalier to say that the politicians only have to react to a mass," Bienvenue said.
Because their children attend parochial school, the two women have no personal stake in public school issues. But subjects such as hiring a superintendent, graduation requirements and the attendance policy keep them returning, she said. "I feel like we all have a responsibility for our community. It is easy to say it is something that doesn't affect me personally. But if things go unchallenged, it affects everyone," she said.
Sometimes, Bienvenue said, she finds that the hardest people to deal with are some at her own City Hall. Using a variety of public access laws, Bienvenue and Peret have requested meeting minutes, contracts and budgets. They also discovered that the Board of Aldermen was only keeping minutes on audio tapes. They complained to the Hampden County District Attorney's Office, which ruled that written minutes must be kept.
Officials at the state Department of Education and the Public Records Division have provided good advice on how to proceed when seeking information, Bienvenue said. Plenty of information about public records laws is available the Internet, she said.
Many citizens get involved because of a single issue. Karl H. Stieg, of Agawam, was among hundreds of residents who joined Concerned Citizens and Businesses of Agawam and, starting in 1995, spent more than five years fighting construction of the Berkshire Power Co. plant that began generating electricity in 2001. The group filed several lawsuits, ousted politicians, placed a referendum on the ballot, petitioned the City Council for hearings and went to hundreds of meetings and hearings. "It is not always an easy task, but it can be done. If you are organized and you have a group of people it is easier, you can accomplish what you want," he said. Stieg said his role was "curator of knowledge." The group's first job was to learn local procedures, zoning laws and court rules. For those who can afford a lawyer, fighting city hall is easier, but most cannot, Stieg said.
In Warren, Peter H. Krawczyk learned the joys - and pains - of community activism in his five years with the Warren Taxpayer Association. A staunch opponent of government waste and corruption, and an advocate of the state's Open Meeting Law and the public's right to know, he was spurred to action several years ago by concern about school spending. His involvement in local education issues led to formation of the association. Krawczyk now attends one or two meetings a week, including sessions in surrounding towns, and knows many public officials. "Once you go (to one meeting), you're afraid if you don't go (to others)," he said, citing concerns about maintaining an open public process.
Being a government watchdog has taken a toll on his wallet, with the costs including fees to purchase public records. He also noted that his interest and inquiries sometimes have been less than welcome. In one instance, a public official threatened legal action, Krawczyk said. But he also has seen victories, and said that some government panels have become more welcoming. This year, he will try to join the government. He is running for public office for the first time, seeking a spot on the Warren Planning Board.
Not everyone who is involved in citizen watchdog activities wants to run for office. In Chicopee, Bienvenue said she is asked frequently why she hasn't. "A private citizen shouldn't have to run in order to be listened to," she said. "You have to participate in government by voting and you have to have people who are willing to speak up."
Staff writers Chris Hamel and Elizabeth Roman contributed to this report.
©2007 The Republican
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