What has turned the relationship between community members and Gorham Town Board so sour?
Last Wednesday (Oct. 12th) the Town Board held its regularly scheduled October meeting. That session quickly turned heated, as the board was hit with a barrage of concerns and complaints from the public.
FingerLakes1.com was there. The meeting room was packed with dozens turning out to either speak, or support speakers voicing concerns about a proposed highway building, traffic issues on County Road 18, and a local law on short-term rentals.
Over the next three days we will tackle each of those topics, but first we wanted to get an understanding of what brought the Town of Gorham to that point last week.
The relationship between the Town and Community is clearly strained. While elected officials were responsive to our requests, and acknowledged some of those raised by the community — the challenges the Town Board faces are not unique.
Debbie North is a Gorham resident who showed up and spoke at that meeting. She says the highway building proposal was a catalyst for a lot of the recent angst felt by residents. That said, it wasn’t the beginning. “It might go back to 2019 at this point,” she recalled. Today we’re here to answer that question about the relationship between community and town board. And three years is a long time for any community to feel like it’s disconnected from the folks tasked with operating and representing it.
“Some of our town board members are very forthcoming,” North continued. But as a collective, especially when we’re dealing with issues that we’ve requested additional information on — the standard answer at the meeting is ‘I’ll get back to you on that’.” The answers don’t arrive to satisfaction of the community. “We’ll follow-up with emails, sometimes we get an answer or two, other times we don’t, oftentimes we get an excuse. ‘Everybody is busy’,” she recalled. “Everybody’s busy. Everybody has lives outside of attending meetings or running the Town, but sometimes it feels more like they don’t want to have to deal with follow-up questions.”
At one point during that contentious meeting last week, Supervisor Fred Lightfoote slammed his fist down on the table. It rattled the room, and many of those in attendance. FingerLakes1.com reached out to Lightfoote to comment on this, as well as other issues related to that meeting last week. He was unavailable.
Kathy Baxter, another Gorham resident who spoke at last week’s meeting agreed that the temperature of that meeting ran hot. She believes that things really turned for the Town Board when it introduced the $5 million highway building plan. “A whole lot of people took notice and said, ‘Wait a minute — that’s obscene’,” she recalled. “They don’t communicate. This is nothing new.”
North agreed that communication was the major hurdle the Town Board needed to overcome if it was going to dig itself out of the current contentious relationship with the community. “The communication we get is not adequate,” she explained. The Town has a monthly newsletter, which is mailed to residents. There was hardly a mention of the highway building project that’s on hold because of a petition and special vote coming up before the next edition comes out.”
She says community members like her have attempted to fill the communication gap, but without Town Board commitment — it’s a challenge. “I’m the admin for the Wildcat Country Community [Facebook] page so I’ve taken to putting any notices about public hearings, meetings, or votes on it,” North continued. “We have about 540 members. The admin of the Canandaigua Chronicles page has also been really helpful allowing us to communicate there, too. Mainly because some of the people impacted have Canandaigua addresses, or have kids who attend Canandaigua schools. There’s around 10,000 members on that page.”
Legally, the Town Board appears to be fulfilling most of its requirements as far as communication is concerned. But residents like North, Baxter, and others who we spoke with at that meeting last week say it’s not enough. The Town publishes legal notices in the Daily Messenger and Finger Lakes Times — two daily newspapers who publish a print newspaper in Ontario County. “Very few people get a print newspaper anymore,” North continued. “Very few. You know, they’re going to outlets such as yours. I mean, I get little pings on my phone all the time when there’s something going on. But very few people get the newspaper.”
But it doesn’t stop with legal notices in local newspapers. Beyond that, the only effort undertaken by the Town Board to inform residents about the public hearing was putting up some signage on town property.
“Even for the elderly members of the community, or people who don’t use social media where there’s been more conversation about these issues, there has been no effort by the Town. None. You can’t put a sandwich board up in front of the library, or in front of Town Hall a week before and expect everyone to drive past it,” North added.
In many ways the problem with communication in Gorham could be summed up like this: The Town Board, groups of residents concerned about individual issues, and community members like North or Baxter concerned with overall function of town government are working independently to share information. Thereby creating an incomplete picture for town residents.
We cannot speak to the motive of town board members, but can say with certainty we’ve covered issues like this in the past in other communities. That said, we can ask ourselves this question: How much different would things be for the Town Board and its relationship with the community if it were effectively communicating with residents?
Over the next three days we will tackle the issues. The $5.5 million proposed highway building, the local law on short-term rentals, and traffic on County Road 18 as development there takes shape.
MORE FROM THIS SERIES
- Part I: Why are Gorham residents so frustrated with the Town Board? (Monday, Oct. 17th)
- Part II: Inside the decision to borrow money to build a $5.5M highway building (Tuesday, Oct. 18th)
- Part III: Should short-term rentals be scrutinized with greater regulation in Gorham? (Wednesday, Oct. 19th)
- Part IV: Traffic concerns vs. economic development in Gorham — What’s wrong with County Road 18? (Thursday, Oct. 20th)