The past year or so has been a learning experience for Doug Borden and Rose Puerto. The two residents of the Versailles building on Boulevard East in West New York have spent countless evenings railing against a proposed high-rise that would be built across the street. The project would, according to them and others, violate the town’s zoning laws and create serious quality of life issues for themselves and their neighbors.
But despite their attendance at multiple town meetings and willingness to work with town officials to address their concerns, they have felt only “frustration” with the town’s government and the manner in which it addresses (or ignores) the concerns of its residents.
So now, without calling themselves leaders or standard bearers or the like, they’re attempting to do something about it.
“We’re essentially going to try to turn the frustration into better leadership for the town,” said Borden last week.
Inspired by their crash course experiences with the town’s Zoning Board, the Board of Commissioners and Mayor Felix Roque himself, Borden and Puerto set out recently to see if their neighbors, and not just those on Boulevard East, knew as little about the town’s inner workings as they did.
“Lots of people didn’t even know that you could go to the meetings,” said Borden. “We think it’s really important to help educate people on what roles they can play and what resources they have.”
“We’re going to try to turn frustration into better leadership for the town.” – Doug Borden
They encouraged participation from the west side of town, where longtime Latino residents are all too familiar with the town’s shenanigans, but also from the waterfront neighborhoods, where many have no idea.
“It’s not hard to see that people in this town are sick of the way it’s being run,” said Borden. “And it’s not that concerns aren’t being heard, people get up and speak in the meetings all the time, but there’s power in numbers, and that’s what we’re after.”
The issues at hand
At last Sunday’s meeting, which Puerto described as a “brainstorming session,” the group did their best to divide their concerns into several categories, including political, quality of life, and public relations issues.
In the political category, attendees expressed a desire to change the town’s form of government from a mayor/commissioner form to a mayor/council form and to address the issue of tax abatements being granted to waterfront developers.
“It seems very strange to us, all of the abatements,” said Borden. “If developers want to come here so badly, which they do, why do we need to offer them all of these abatements?”
In terms of quality of life, concerns that were raised included transportation issues like a lack of bike lanes, overcrowding by buses along the town’s main thoroughfares, and a general indifference towards keeping streets free of dog waste.
“It doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but you can’t walk around at night without stepping in it,” said Puerto.
And in terms of public relations, the main complaint was simple, but substantial.
“The sound system in the municipal chambers hasn’t worked for over a year,” said Borden. “They need to fix that. A resident who attends a public meeting isn’t obligated to speak, but they have the right to listen.”
Borden and Puerto said that at the meeting’s conclusion, subcommittees were formed to tackle each issue. They added that, at the next meeting, ambassadors would be named to spread the word about the group to other parts of town.
No griping allowed
Puerto explained that although citizens groups have existed in town in the past, many relied on complaining, protesting or deriding the town’s government for its decisions rather than offering constructive criticism.
“We feel like that type of complaining isn’t constructive, it’s more draining than anything,” she said. “The combative attitude isn’t helpful. We’re going to be solution-oriented.”
It’s unclear whether other groups have ever tried such an approach. The Residents for a Better West New York, which sprang up late last year, developed into a mainly anti-Roque group aimed at changing the town’s form of government from what they called a “dictatorial” mayor/commissioner system to the more “democratic” mayor/council.
In recent weeks, however, that group seems to have fizzled. Borden says this new group will perform no such disappearing act.
“I don’t know that there’s been a consistent group like this,” he said. “But it’s logical that if reasonable people realize that there are ways for them to be engaged, they’ll feel empowered and take part.”
Asked whether the public’s attitude of general apathy, which some have said will prevent things from ever changing in West New York, would derail their efforts, Borden replied that it could, but they wouldn’t know without trying.
“There’s probably nepotism, and there’s probably cronyism, but we believe that if we take the high road and pound away, we can effect change,” he said.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org