town hall meet•ing (toun hôl me’ting) n. US
1. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) an assembly of the inhabitants of a town wherein the citizens and elected officials gather, ostensibly to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech and peacable assembly, but quickly sink to hurling invective, screaming, accusing, and/or threatening each other and future generations with all manner of vile consequences. [ME tun halle mete < OE tun heall metan]
At least, that’s what it’s become lately.
One of the reasons I started this blog was because we see far too much of the above. People get so hot under the collar in so many public fora that they devolve into an “us vs. them” battle. At times, it is more Civil War than civil discourse. KingstonBarn is meant as a venue to calmly analyze problems and propose creative solutions. When I see better results achieved, I want to point that out, too. Well, last Thursday night, in a relaxed Common Council Chambers, I saw what we can aspire to be.
We had a town hall meeting for the Kingston Comprehensive Development Plan. Alderman-at-Large James Noble, Chairman of the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, explained the rules of engagement. No shouting each other down, no singling people out by name, be respectful, keep it moving. Each of a dozen tables had a Committee Member Moderator, whose job was to get as many ideas on big 2′ x 3′ paper as people could come up with, list them in categories (Strengths of Kingston, Problems of Kingston, Opportunities of Kingston), and rate the top three from each group. After all groups were finished, the top three from each were presented to the room as a whole, and every individual voted for their best in the room, signified by distributing six orange dots to your choice. Noble, as Chairman, set the rules, but what he told me after showed his key to the success for this stage of the process. He stepped back, he said, and did not try to run things from the head of the room. His approach was to “…set it up and let it happen. We want people to help, and this seems like the best way to go about it.”
Was this a diverse group? You bet. I sat at a table with Tom, the real estate agent/Moderator, Huntley, an architect who splits his home between New York and Kingston’s waterfront, Vince and Linda, a long-married couple who are long-time residents of Meaghar School District, Emma and Sean, a couple of Onteora High School students here on a civics project, and Beth, who works with Kingston Land Trust and the Hudson River Estuary Program. Me? I’ve lived with my beautiful bride of twenty years and our teenaged kids in Kingston’s Third Ward since 2005.
I counted over 100 people in the room. All of them, from the city officials to the visiting high schoolers, were engaged in the work. The task at hand, while serious, was not heavy or daunting. People were involved. If there were 120 folks there, I am sure there were 600 points for consideration. Many groups around the room duplicated some of the work of the others, but the boards were filled with creative solutions and thoughtful, interesting views on opportunities and challenges. The answers covered the entire spectrum, from simple (bolt the street signs so they can’t be turned by vandals), to intricately complicated (simplify zoning and development regulations to encourage new construction and business). We need the plan to solve the problem. We haven’t worked on one as far-ranging as this in over 50 years, I’m told.
We are not done yet; not by a long shot, as my dad used to say. This is the end of the first stage of creating a comprehensive plan for Kingston’s future. The Planning Committee will have to reach conclusions from the data assembled. The Common Council, and the Mayor will have to create a plan out of those conclusions. Kingston’s City Planner Suzanne Cahill and her office will have to implement the plan, and we, the citizens of Kingston, will have to carry much of the load along the way. We will get to 2025, but what shape we are in when we get there depends on the work we are willing to do.
The challenges that face Kingston’s future are no smaller or larger than they were last month, but with so many pitching in on successful town hall meetings like this, they become a little more managable.
Are we there yet? No, but we have made a good start.
Editor’s note: To follow the progress of the Kingston 2025 Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, click on the Kingston2025 logo above. You will be linked to the City’s website at the Comprehensive Development Plan’s page. -abcd