Monday April 1, 2013

LENOX -- In the effort to boost citizen involvement in town government and preserve civility, a group of citizens working with Town Manager Gregory Federspiel has organized a Town Government 101 event to create a road map for public participation in key issues.

The gathering at the Lenox Library, open to all residents, will be on Thursday, April 11, from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

The group, convened by licensed social worker and clinical psychologist Roberta Russell, hopes to build on a series of community dialogues held last spring in an effort to ease tensions between citizens opposing the Kennedy Park Belvedere memorial and town officials. The four meetings were held at the Lenox Community Center but were off-limits to media coverage.

"There was a lot of divisiveness in the town after the Kennedy Park events," said Russell, a 30-year resident of Lenox, in an interview at the town library. She described the community dialogues as "quite fruitful, but "what came out of it was that people really don’t know how town government operates, how things get decided."

A few months later, Russell and Federspiel put together a working group to organize the upcoming gathering. Other core members of the group included Debbie Burke, a corporate consultant; Lenox Library Executive Director Sharon Hawkes; and Planning Board Chairwoman Kathleen McNulty-Vaughan.

A major goal of April 11’s session is to "talk together in a way that would not polarize us so that going forward, we can make decisions and have discussions," said Russell.


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It is not tied to any specific past, present or potential future hot-button issues, Burke stressed.

"It’s a way to bring us together so that as we talk to each other, we talk as friends rather than as if we were enemies or antagonists," said Russell. "In order to do that, we have to have practice. So we’re practicing."

The library’s recent "Lenox Reads" project built around Richard Russo’s novel and the HBO film, "Empire Falls," is a perfect example of a community effort designed to enhance communication among townspeople, said Burke.

That project became intertwined with discussions on "how Lenox can move from wherever it is that we are to whatever it is that we would like to be," Russell said.

The group, with major input from Finance Committee Chairwoman Lucy Kennedy, produced a six-page brochure, "Your Town Government," that offers residents a basic primer on Town Hall, community finances and citizen participation.

"To make this form of government work," the brochure states, "it is important that citizens be respectful of others’ views, focus on issues not personalities, become informed about issues and participate in town processes." The handout is available at the town library and will be distributed at the May 2 annual town meeting.

Russell said the group’s discussions with Federspiel produced statistics such as the number of paid town employees (200, including the school department) and volunteers (more than 200).

"It takes more volunteers than employees to make this town work," Burke said. "What we’re facing is a dearth of volunteers."

The April 11 gathering is designed to build bridges between members of town government and residents, Hawkes added.

"This is the chance to face it head-on and really talk about what everybody needs to get involved, what does government need to do to be welcoming to people’s involvement. What do people need to do to step up? It takes both sides," Hawkes said.

"When you have a town meeting form of government, you are the government," Burke pointed out. "Government is not a group of paid experts over there with whom you may argue, but we’re all in it together on the same side of the fence. They are your neighbors."

Russell, referring to public cynicism over how national and state government functions, said it’s important for local residents to understand that their input is taken seriously. "If we want to be heard, our voices have some importance and clout," she stressed. "If we think no one’s listening and we don’t say anything, then of course we have no input."

"The idea is to have as complete participation as is reasonable" by town departments and offices, Burke said. "This shouldn’t be complicated. This should be fun, accessible, it’s 101."

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com or (413) 637-2551. On Twitter: @BE_cfanto

If you go Š

What: Town Government 101

When: Thursday, April 11, 6:30-8 p.m.

Where: Lenox Library, 18 Main St.

Event description: Following an introduction and welcome, representatives of town departments and committees will be stationed in the library to offer residents guidance on any questions they may have on permits, regulations and policies. A followup discussion with Select Board members, as well as an offering of cookies and refreshments, will conclude the session.