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Editor's Voice: It's not just about trees

First, a warning: This is an editorial about the cutting down of trees in the Middletown business district, and the subsequent protest by – and arrest of – our owner, Louise Sukle. We suspect we know what you’re thinking: Seen it. Watched it on TV. Read about it in newspapers. Over it.

 

But in the public debate over all that happened – and there’s been plenty of debate, if the plethora of public comments in our Sound Off column and Facebook page this past week is any indication – a crucial point is ignored, a point concerning the borough’s good governance and well-being.

 

The tree cutting is another instance where Borough Council has made a major decision without public discussion, or public debate, or the dissemination of its intentions to the public. In this instance, council has embarked on a renovation of the business district without a final design plan – its design architect, Dewberry, is still drawing up a final plan, for about $15,000 – or financing in place. How much will it cost the borough? How will it look? While Chris Courogen, borough secretary and director of communications, explained to reporters the day the trees came down that the action was the first step in a major renovation of the business district, and promised the trees would be replaced by The Right Trees for a streetscape, he was short on specifics – simply because, right now, there are few specifics.

 

While council voted to hire Dewberry and embark on “Phase 1’’ of the renovation, there was little discussion of what would happen, and when. While it seems odd to us to cut down trees now and replace them months from now, it’s surprising for council to spend any amount of money to improve the business district for the businesses there without consulting, or even notifying, the businesses there. Or the public, which will foot the bill one way or another – through borough funds or state grants or, likely, a combination of both.

 

We learned on Wednesday, Nov. 14 that the borough’s Shade Tree Commission approved the tree removal, and called the borough to confirm or deny the rumor that the cutting would begin the following Monday. The borough’s response was a firm I-Don’t-Know, and a promise to find the answer by that same Monday. When the borough placed “no parking’’ signs along South Union Street to clear the way for the tree removal, we finally had our answer.

 

We love trees as much as the next person, but what’s particularly disturbing to us is council’s penchant to make major decisions as secretively – with no public discussion – as possible. The closing of the borough’s communications center came as a motion from the floor during a council meeting, with no mention of it on council’s agenda, and well after the time allotted for public comment. The same was true with the “de-funding’’ of the Middletown Public Library – a motion from the floor, approved nearly unanimously without discussion, save an unsuccessful attempt by Councilor Scott Sites to preserve at least some of the funding to assure the facility would operate in 2013.

 

Even a golden nugget of an idea – form a nonprofit organization that can accept tax-exempt donations to the library, an idea presented sometime later – was tarnished by council’s eagerness to jettison the expense from its budget without engaging the public in its plan. Council even passed up a chance to present its position – unfiltered – to about 100 residents, many of the library lovers, at a town meeting in October. Instead, the council president and vice president stood about a half a block down the street, painting a railroad sign, as their constituents filed into the meeting place.

 

Council’s failure to engage the public has brought suspicion and, ultimately, animosity. And with more major decisions possible – council is studying the possible sale of the water system, a public asset – it behooves the borough to be more open with its plans, or face another groundswell of protest.

 

Louise Sukle’s protest – she chained herself to the tree in front of her office – was something she believed she had to do. No trees were harmed in her civil disobedience. They came falling down, piece by piece, because of a council action that seems impetuous for of a lack of approved plans and concrete funding.

 

As promised, the borough has replaced them – with potted pines, a temporary measure until permanent replacements are planted in the future. Like other businesses along Union Street, we’re discussing ways to decorate the one closest to our front door for the holidays. The borough is encouraging such volunteerism. One wonders why it doesn’t engage the public from the beginning.