Town and city elected officials (along with those who serve on boards and committees) serve as a reflection of any municipality’s sense of who and what it is, including what it stands for. It’s character. Clearly that’s a lot of responsibility, and a lot of pressure as well, as the decisions a select board or city council make reflect on every single resident of the municipality that elected them.
During the Jan. 8 City Council meeting I sat quietly, feeling somewhat heartbroken (and even a bit ashamed) at the reflection being cast on my city, and on myself as a resident.
Carolyn Silsby, representing the Capital City Band (an institution whose participation in Montpelier civic life predates that of any of the city’s elected officials by decades) took an opportunity during Montpelier’s City Council meeting to ask why the Montpelier Community Loan Fund board (which is now in charge of handing out grants to many of those external organizations that used to petition for funds individually on city meeting ballots) had proposed reducing the band’s perennial grant of support from its traditional $1,500 to $1,000 — a $500 reduction (not $5,000 — $500) amounting to an unexpected and unexplained 33 percent budget cut which Ms. Silsby made clear would be devastating.
It turns out the reason was little more than “just because,” with an unfortunate bit of finger-wagging dashed in for good measure.
The surprise 33 percent cut was apparently rooted in the broader budgetary mantra of the moment — that Montpelier should be asking more money from neighboring towns for services that may include residents of these towns. Apparently “serving” encompasses “listening to” or “sitting in with.”
Generally speaking, the underlying principle is reasonable — but when scaled down to a matter of $500 for a beloved, century-old institution, it isn’t reasonable — it’s just silly. And when that silliness manifests at such a quantum ($500) level, two things happen.
One, it turns into pettiness. It was difficult to sit there while Ms. Silsby was patronizingly briefed on nonprofit fundraising and organizational priorities by representatives of the community fund board and councilors for nearly 20 minutes.
But second — and perhaps more significant — it turns into dogma. Consider, why on earth would a council meeting devote 20 minutes to a $500 cut to the band but spend no time on discussion whatsoever before voting to approve the $7,406,787 city budget later on in the same meeting?
Because for some making the decisions, it was a question of ideology, rather than on-the-ground reality.
The overall budget proposal reflects acquiescence to the “bend the cost curve” and “ask more from neighboring towns” priorities of the currently dominant Montpelier austerity movement, and as such it merited little discussion to those within that movement. But to its more dogmatic adherents, the band’s meager $1,500 perennial request, trivial as it was, was an affront.
Poor Ms. Silsby couldn’t have realized she had invited a hearing on ideological purity, simply by asking why. One wonders if band supporters weren’t left to ponder the obvious, logical solution to the puzzle presented to them — to screen audiences and musicians for non-Montpelier residents only, and then — perhaps — see the $500 restored.
(It should be noted that the overall city budget allotted approximately $118,000 for projects like the band but is proposing to spend only $111,000. Seven thousand dollars, therefore, remains available).
By the time another commenter also rose to question another seemingly arbitrary lowball grant, it was clear that the band was not the only victim to this one-size-fits-all orthodoxy.
This does not feel like who I am, as a citizen. It does not feel like what Montpelier is. Yet, for the moment, it is on both counts, based on the reflection cast back from this political mirror.
And that stings. A lot.
When it arrived on the scene a couple of years back, the Vibrant and Affordable Montpelier austerity movement had a persuasive case and can point to considerable successes since then in changing the city’s budgetary dynamics. What made their case compelling was its firm grounding in pragmatism.
The surreally disproportionate focus on a mere $500 for a cherished institution (an institution which has been a part of Montpelier for quite a bit longer than any of its elected officials) suggests that it’s time for that movement to decide whether it wants to be a pragmatic or a dogmatic one.
While City Clerk John Odum is an employee of the city of Montpelier, he writes this as a citizen.
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