From up high above the clouds, looking down, where all the world below seems green and blue and the sun is always shining, the city of Burlington welcomes everyone to participate in important decisions. Public engagement makes city planning and governing processes sparkle. It’s pretty and makes a person feel good.
From up close, though, city government has shadowy alcoves of insular authority: When ‘public engagement’ workshops are scheduled mid-weekday; when zoning changes are set in motion before public input occurs. And, apparently, in a culture of exclusion at Burlington City Arts.
Inclusion, fairness, and sense of sharing the human experience with others matters. My life has been an immersion in the arts, and these values are the light that fills that space. There was a time when I lacked the confidence to respect my own opinion and champion it. That changed; now there is no daylight between me and my convictions. This blog reflects that.
Prior to November, the BCA board did not warn its meetings or publish agendas or minutes. The practical result for anyone who wasn’t a board member was that meetings were essentially held in secret. BCA began to publish agendas and minutes to the BCA web site when I made the request of the Mayor’s staff and Clerk & Treasurer’s Office. I made the request because I wanted to speak to the board — to invite conversations between board members and myself and other artists with grievances against BCA. I could not attend a BCA meeting without learning the meeting date.
I found that the agendas did not include a public forum, so I requested that, too. I attended two BCA meetings, speaking at each to let the board know that in our arts community there was a perception of inequity and lack of access to the decision-making body of BCA. BCA meetings are scheduled two months apart. The issues I raised were not added to any agenda, and no one responded in person, in all this time.
When I approached the board, I didn’t know them. I still don’t know them. I understand that their membership was sought in part for their financial capacity; all BCA board members are expected to make a contribution to BCA. I respect people I haven’t met; I interact with civility and afford strangers dignity. I offered to facilitate conversations with others having specific concerns, to empower the BCA board with access to solve its issues independently. I assumed that critique from a concerned, aware, and respectful stakeholder and taxpayer would be received with interest. I was wrong.
At a special BCA board meeting this week, City Attorney Eileen Blackwood explained open meeting law to board members. The Mayor’s “Changes to Open Meeting Law” memo of July, 2014 may never have made its way to them.
Respect should be due a city department that corrects an error. But this meeting laid bare the harmful insularity of a city board which self-elects new members.
There was a discussion to determine exactly how little public participation during a meeting would meet the threshold of open meeting law requirements. It was an active exploration — by grownups who are looked to for advice on management of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars each year — seeking how to minimize the potential for any other voice of the community to contribute wisdom or opinion.
The city attorney helped them define two to three minutes as an enforceable limit for public input. I apply myself to include people — to foster self-confidence in others and a sense of value, engagement, and worth to society. BCA met for years in private, did not invite public forum, was unaware of open meeting law requirements, and was content to learn they could limit public input in the pattern of the city council model which crushes public comment into brief statements for a short period at the beginning of meetings, before agenda items are even presented. Their conversation was heartbreaking.
There is no ambiguity in my opinion that the City of Burlington should rebuild its arts office management to become transparent and that a revision of the charter of our arts office is needed to ensure it truly includes people who could offer guidance for arts resources and policy-making that is grounded in the purpose of community-building.
When the city attorney explained that emails discussing BCA business were public records that needed to be preserved, a BCA board member commented that it was “a little bit offensive – I write checks!”
Bless her heart. And calm mine.