By several counts, the Gloucester City Council is having second thoughts about a rather frightening game plan some members and other city officials had pursued to keep a lid tonight on the opponents of the new hotel overlay district approved for a portion of Commercial Street.
That’s a good thing. Indeed, it still seems offensive that the council’s initial proposal — to open a duly petitioned public hearing tonight, then abruptly shut it down before anyone could speak, as reported in last Thursday’s Times — ever even saw the light of day, let alone received a virtual sign-off from City Solicitor Suzanne Egan and an endorsement from City Clerk Linda Lowe.
But even if the council does allow comment (see news story, Page 1), the public hearing episode represents another troubling case showing that a growing number of officials — not just in Gloucester, but elsewhere as well — have not only lost touch with residents, they’ve come to see their input as something to fear, let alone dismiss.
While the Gloucester Fort hearing caper – which comes to a head at City Hall tonight – looms as the latest episode, it’s at least the fourth such case within the last two months.
First came Rockport’s Planning Board, which gave the green light to the razing of the towering smokestack looming over the Cape Ann Tool Company, but found that such a change, along a reduction in the affordable housing component of the site permit, was not “significant” enough to warrant a public hearing.
Then came Rockport’s DPW Board of Commissioners, who — putting through a “trial” run for Sunday transfer station openings – never bothered to ask the public for its input regarding that little potential life-changer, either. And just for good measure, let’s not forget Gloucester Community Arts Charter School’s Board of Trustees, who kept their own attendance at one member below a quorum and thereby kept the feared “public” and a Times reporter out of a meeting to discuss allegations and a petition submitted to the board — a public body running a very public, independent school —by a handful of parents and others three days earlier.
Any time elections or town meetings roll around, many city and town officials seem stunned when a majority of residents decide to stay home, based in part on the premise that what they say doesn’t matter, and that nobody cares what they think. And that apathy is almost always greeted with assurances claiming that’s not the case — that officials want residents to have input in city and town decisions.
But, until more logical heads prevailed, that’s precisely the message Gloucester’s council was poised to send to the Fort hotel opponents tonight by seeking a way to shut down legitimate discussion before it even began. And it’s a message these other panels have sent to their constituents as well.
Hopefully, all city and town boards and committees will get a wakeup call from cases such as this, and re-acquaint themselves with a basic tenet of public service: to represent city or town residents, not carry out their own agendas.