If only the party Ubers were in town all week—we could take them to city council meetings.
It’s hard to tell, sometimes, whether people are paying attention to the civic running of Morgantown or not. Council meetings usually draw sparse attendance, and residents sometimes seem unclear, in casual conversation, about how things work—what the user fee is buying us, for example, or even when and where to vote.
But every few years an issue comes around that everyone has an opinion about, and dormant engagement roars to life. The question in 2011 of whether Northeast Natural Energy would be allowed to drill gas wells just upriver from the city’s drinking water intake springs to mind. Council’s banning ordinance was overturned in court, but the months of dialogue educated all of us about drinking water and hydraulic fracturing and contributed to the decision to pursue home rule. In 2014, a critical mass of people got fed up with the gravel trucks: Should they be allowed to drive on state routes through the heart of downtown, or have to divert around it? Council heard those concerns, too. That has led to a long and multi-part process that includes upgrading the alternate route.
All of the media liven up when a controversy like this arises, and residents pack city hall for council meetings that go ’til 11 or midnight.
This summer’s kerfuffle took a lot of us by surprise. We’d already scheduled a story on the Haymaker Forest in this issue of the magazine (“Make Hay—or Not,” page 22) when the public got the city’s hurriedly planned, quietly proposed bid to buy the property between its teeth. Suddenly Facebook was blowing up. Talk radio got heated. Letters to the editor of The Dominion Post waxed strident and, sure enough, we had a midnight council meeting. It turns out that, even though it’s not always obvious, some people really care about adding new greenspace—and a lot of people take notice when the city decides suddenly to spend a lot of money without weighing its options.
Over the past couple months I’ve talked with residents who are actively engaged in all kinds of ways: watchdogging bail bonding, challenging restrictions that keep food trucks off the streets downtown during the day, writing letters to the editor about abortion in advance of November’s Amendment 1 ballot question. It’s all a fun mix of personality-driven yet almost entirely civil discourse, and it’s heartening.
There’s plenty to pay attention to, coming up. The city is working on creating a land reuse and preservation agency, the first one in the state. We here at Morgantown like to believe that more and better sidewalks will get attention—we are surely going to continue to call for it. And the big and important idea of annexation has been under study for a while and is likely to resurface soon.
Let’s continue to do more than just bellyache in private, and state our views in public forums where things get done. Town improves, gradually, through the effort.
See you at council,