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Pam Gencarella: A Civics Lesson From the East Bay

Thursday, June 26, 2014

 

Our representative form of government should be just that, representative of the will of the people.  But what do you do when you feel your government is not working for you?  Citizens of the East Bay community have shown us what they do.

Back in 2012, the General Assembly passed a budget that restructured ownership and operation of the Sakonnet Bridge so as to allow for a toll system. Who would have thought back then that the tolling of the Sakonnet Bridge, a done deal in the budget, would even be up for discussion nearly two years later? 

STOP (Sakonnet Tolls Opposition Platform) is a group of completely volunteer, concerned taxpayers, determined to fight against an unjust decision made by the RI government.  While no one likes a toll, where is the equity in forcing the small East Bay community to foot the bill for the entire state’s cost of infrastructure maintenance and repair, all in the name of a little commuter bridge? 

When was the last time that a group of taxpayers, without the use of paid lobbyists or funding from any special interest group, made significant headway in influencing the direction of their representatives on major legislation?

STOP’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by the local media.  However, not much has been made of the process, the wave (or tsunami) generated by this group.  STOP poses as a beacon for the rest of the state to follow.  When the people determined that their representatives were no longer representing them, what did they do?  They exerted enough pressure to hold the proverbial feet of these officials to the fire. 

A Herculean Effort

It has been no small task to create the groundswell that became a thorn in the side of the East Bay representatives.  This volunteer group performed hundreds of hours of research.  They read reams of government documents to discern what was required by law and by contract regarding the construction and subsequent maintenance of the new bridge.  They attended more board meetings and hearings than any one taxpayer wants to in their life time. They wrote letters to the Editor, they rallied at various political gatherings, and they obtained thousands of signatures supporting their position on the Toll.  They provided analyses of the severe impact the tolls were likely to have, not only on residents and the local economy, but on the state’s economy as a whole.  They engaged in debate with their individual representatives.  They had numerous discussions with non-elected officials.  And, they engaged their individual city/town councils in an effort to gain support for their position.

But most importantly, they stayed the course.  They proved that they would not back down on this important issue.  All of this activity with no paycheck for their work, no monthly fee for their lobbying.  They are average citizens, like you and me, squeezing in time between work, family, and the myriad daily activities in which we all engage. 

While the end result was not ideal, as it included the usual increase in taxes and fees, the General Assembly was forced to revisit their expensive and unwise decision (they wasted $5 million erecting the infrastructure for the toll) and to reverse the law that allowed the tolling of a commuter bridge.

Foiled in the End

Contrast that with the hard work and dedication of many Coventry residents when trying to take back control of the fiscal mess known as the Central Coventry Fire District.  Many local residents stepped up to the plate and volunteered their time to research the issues and create a vision that would allow them to pay for the services they wanted at a reasonable cost.  They crafted a hybrid plan, modeled after another RI town, in order to reduce the outrageous cost of that fire district, resulting from years of mismanagement and bloated salaries and benefits.  They lobbied hard for legislation that would allow them to institute their plan, only to be squashed by the General Assembly.

What was the difference between these two battles for liberty?  The East Bay residents were only up against the governor, 75 state representatives, 38 state senators and a transportation bureaucracy, all entrenched in the ideology of ‘tax it if you can’. 

The Coventry residents were up against the public unions.

Fortunately, this November, the Coventry residents have the ability to continue the battle for liberty and show the state that special interests over liberty will not continue.  It will only take a few minutes.  It’s called voting.

Pam Gencarella is a member of OSTPA, a taxpayer advocacy organization in Rhode Island.

 

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