Friday, May 6, 2011

Experiential Journal: Mahwah Town-hall Meeting

By Graig Mihok

Attending the Mahwah Town-Hall meeting on March, 31st, 2011, was an interesting experience. The issue that had everyone, including myself, crammed into the municipal building's basement, was the proposition for zoning ordinances that would lead to the construction of a mall. This issue is of significance to me, not just because I am a Mahwah resident, but because you can see the proposed site of the mall, near the giant Sheraton building, from my backyard.

I had never been to a town meeting before so I was not sure about what to expect. I arrived to a packed parking lot and waited on a long, winding line, that started outside the building.The line continued down a number of hallways to a stair well, then finally to the basement, where town workers scrambled to set up podiums and microphones. The municipal building did not appear to be equipped for this meeting, but it was going to happen regardless.

It was interesting to see the contrast of how the public, town council members, and developers engaged each other regarding the issue at hand. The public used a more passionate voice, accompanied by occasional outburst. The Council looked, acted, and sounded like robots, which was and is to be expected from any one in their position. Strangely, the developers were a combination of both, trying their hardest to remain technical and professional. When the audience would call out during their presentation in protest, sometimes they would let their emotions seep into their words.

I sat in my uncomfortable chair for nearly four hours holding up my recorder at chest-level, praying the audio of the recorder would be audible enough to be useful. Going back and listening to the recordings, there are moments that still make me shake my head; the loud boos when the council refused the non-binding referendum, and when the vote for the first ordinance passed. You can still feel the energy of the room through the recordings.

One thing I took immediate note of was the difference in the age of the members of the public who decided to wait on line and speak. They ranged from high school students to senior citizens and most were incredibly passionate in their monologues. Even though much of what was said had ended up being repeated over and over again, it became clear what was on the people's minds. It got a bit tedious at times, hearing the same information repeated differently, but when you have so many people on a line stretching the length of large municipal building, it was understandable and expected.

One of the moments that stuck with me the most was the council member's motion to propose the first ordinance. It was heartbreaking listening to people scream about their lives being ruined by the people they voted in to represent them. I remember getting home around 1 am, feeling sick to my stomach about the council's vote that allowed the ordinances to pass with so many people around them in protest.

When I reflect on this meeting, I still have no idea about what any of this really means. In a few years, will there be a mall in view from my backyard? Perhaps something will happen and this whole project with come to a halt, or be delayed for years, then wither and fade away. It was funny, and somewhat horrifying learning from class assignments this semester that the area my brothers, cousins, and friends and I had all called a playground was a toxic dumping site and might eventually become the grounds of a shopping mall. I am usually the type of person that always would rather know something than to be ignorant of it; but I have to admit, some of these findings have me questioning this logic.

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