To the Editor:
I was one of the citizens of Johnston who attempted to attend and involve myself with Mayor Polisena’s decision to supply water to the Invenergy power plant in Burrillville. Despite every effort I made, my voice was blocked from giving input, from engaging in debate and from voicing respectful opposition.
With only 24 hours notice, the city announced, quietly, through the Secretary of State’s office that it was considering being the water supplier to a power plant that many in Rhode Island oppose. This meeting was not publicized on the city website, and the announcement contained spelling errors that didn’t allow internet searches to pick up that it was planned a few days in advance. Not that it would have mattered if there was an open and transparent announcement. Due to the actions of Mayor Polisena, those of us who live and work in this city were stonewalled.
Throughout the day of the meeting I attempted to contact all the city councilors and the mayor’s office three times. My only question: when will the citizens of Johnston be allowed to give their input on this deal? I reached the mayor’s secretary a single time, and she told me that there would be no opportunity for the public to voice their opinions. She seemed surprised that I expected to be able to give input.
I decided to attend the town meeting that night at the courthouse on Atwood Ave. I arrived there at 6:30 for a 7:00 meeting. I, along with dozens of others, were literally not allowed to enter the building. Instead, we stood outside in the cold rain, craning our necks to get a look into the room where our elected representatives were “deliberating” the topic of a water sale to a private company. The room was “filled to capacity,” according to the police officers by proponents of the power plant, who arrived over an hour early. All the opponents to the plant were locked out of the room. The actual vote took five minutes and was approved unanimously.
Compare this to the transparency with which Woonsocket dealt with the issue. Unlike in Johnston, multiple town meetings that allowed spoken and written testimony to the council preceded the vote. Unlike in Johnston, the mayor released details of the deal to the public in advance of the vote. Unlike in Johnston, the Woonsocket Town Council deliberated for an hour before voting down the sale of water to Invenergy. We had no debate and no transparency. Citizens of Johnston were locked out of the only public meeting held in regards to the topic; a meeting only held as a formality as the mayor had already secured the sale of water through private negotiations.
In interviews since, the mayor has gone his predictable route and attacked his critics and claimed that he is a victim of hypocrisy and carpetbaggers. In an interview with the Sun Rise published on Jan. 11, he even called us “anti-citizen” for wanting an opportunity to engage in our local democracy. Perhaps if the mayor and the council had actually allowed input, the deal would have been broadly popular and passed, or perhaps not. We will never know.
The same night I was locked out of engaging, or even attending, a meeting on an important local issue in my town I went home and watched President Obama’s goodbye speech. In it, he made a statement that I think we can all agree with no matter our political affiliations:
"It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen.”
I say it is not those of us who cared enough to call our city government, to wait in the rain while our council approved a controversial deal without releasing any details or hearing from the public, who are “anti-citizen.” It is Mayor Polisena who, through his actions, has shown himself to be “anti-citizen.”