The Next Faithful Step
Episode 17: The Town Meeting
Almond Springs (Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary)
The Reverend Charlotte Robinson asked for quiet at 7:35 on Tuesday evening, January 23rd. The three weeks leading up to the public meeting often found the pastor of the First Church of Almond Springs, California, juggling her loyalties. Once the Town Council had made known its request that she moderate the town meeting, she became a public figure wherever she went—at church, in the grocery store, even at her son's basketball games.
Everyone had an opinion on whether the Council should approve the Almond Glen housing tract. A drive down any street revealed shiny green signs saying "Save the Glen" and deep blue signs saying "Save the Town." One house even had both a green sign and a blue sign out front. It seems that one spouse longed for the prosperity and jobs that a new development promised, while the other believed that "pillaging the land" was too high a price to pay for prosperity. Now it seemed as if everyone in town had packed into the high school cafeteria for the town meeting.
Charlotte opened the meeting by explaining the procedure for the evening. "This is a specially-convened meeting of the Almond Springs Town Council," she began, "I have been asked to moderate the meeting so that the Council can listen to your ideas and opinions—and so that the members of the council can participate in the debate whenever appropriate. The issues that we will consider tonight are important. They will affect our life together for years to come. Now, we know that people on each side of the issue feel deeply. And it will be tempting for emotions to get the best of us."
"My job tonight will be to ensure that each side gets a proper hearing and to remind us to keep the debate from devolving into name calling. I have also been asked by the Council to summarize the issues at various points during the evening so that we do not get too caught up in flow of speakers that we lose our sense of perspective. By prior agreement, two Council members will open the debate. Ansel Richards will speak for the housing project and then Louis Walsh will speak in opposition to it. The floor will then be open for your comments. Two microphones have been set up to assist each of you in being heard. I will ask initially that those for the project line up at the microphone in the left-hand aisle and those opposed at that microphone on the right-hand side. We will then alternate. Each speaker has up to two minutes. Ansel will begin."
"Do you want to be like LA, with one strip mall stacked against another?" Ansel argued that too much of California's land was already developed. It was immoral, he said, for a town to consider such expansion when there were large portions of the state—especially in nearby Fresno—that could be re-developed as livable space for workers and families. He concluded with a prophet's plea, "Do we want to be like LA or the Silicon Valley with one strip mall stacked against another? Many of us left that life to come to Almond Springs. But now some people want to pave the way for it to come roaring up the mountain. What's so wrong with the life we already have?"
"We have two choices. We can grow or die."
Louis then stood to speak. He recounted the businesses that were now vacant and the good people who did not have decent work. Some people shifted uncomfortably when he mentioned their situation by name. "But we did something about it," he concluded. "I went out and got the Pass-through built so that we'd have an artery to pump life back into this town. And now we have two choices. We can grow or we can die. What's it gonna be?"
The meeting lumbered along after that, with one side weighing in after the other. Speakers usually came with hand-written notes to read and their remarks rarely referenced other people's ideas.
One young man, for example, opposed the plan. "Pillaging the land is wrong," he said. "We just read in my history class about the first big cities in America and how places like Chicago took pristine prairies and built smoke stacks on them. They did not even pick up the garbage, you know. People just threw it in the street. It's like the Russians with Chernobyl. All in the name of progress. Destroying the land is wrong even if people do it for good reasons. All I have to say is 'Save the Glen.'" And at that a group of his friends began chanting "Save the Glen, Save the Glen."
When Charlotte restored order, a middle-aged man with a wind-worn face and calloused hands spoke. He looked directly at Ansel Richards as he spoke. "Are you people serious?" he cried. "What have you got? Trees, grass and squirrels? And you want to stack that up against my children's future? Come on. Let's just get this meeting over with. We can put it to a vote right now. Everybody knows what we gotta do. Let's just get this over with because there is no way that I'm going to let you people take my kids away from my town."
Each person, it seemed, had to say their peace. Older people told stories of how the town once was—either as a plea to retain its present isolation or as a prelude to saying the town could return to its former glory if only it were allowed to grow. Middle-aged folks talked alternately about preserving small-town morality and about kick-starting the town's economy.
Finally Charlotte observed aloud that there were probably some people who wished to speak but who neither supported nor opposed the plan. After a few moments, one brown-haired girl wearing her brother's letterman jacket raised her hand. And Charlotte walked out to her with the microphone from the podium. The ninth-grade girl stood at her place as Charlotte held the microphone.
"My name is Jessica Erickson. And right now I don't know what to say but I'm gonna try. I've heard this debate a lot at my house lately, y'know." Laughter rippled through the room because her parents were the ones with contradicting signs on their lawn. "And in my Science class." More laughter from those who knew that Ansel Richards was her Science teacher. "And I guess what I'm gonna say is pretty obvious but I'm gonna say it anyway. Can't we find a way to save the town and save the glen? I mean there's gotta be a way to keep some things we like about the glen and still build some houses. I was thinking about this big, old tree in the glen (y'know the one that Jimmy Bishop fell out of that time) and about how we always used to ride our bikes up there after Mr. Meyers put up the tire swing. And that should be a playground, not somebody's house. But then I think about all those stores that are closed downtown and how me and my brother used to talk to Mr. Bellini while he put stuff on the shelves. And I don't want his store to close like all the others. And, well, what I want to say is, 'Is there a way to have progress in an environmental kind of way?' That's all I have to say."
Other hands went up after that. People stood up to offer suggestions rather than to argue for or against the project. "Maybe we could get the developer to make a park," one said after Charlotte passed him her microphone. A retired handyman stood to say that "they don't have to grade the hills so much if they don't build the houses one on top the other. They could spread them out and keep the contours of the hills." Many folks asked that the biggest trees be spared and that the housing tract be built around them. Some of the ideas were not particularly practical (like the one to make a law against fences). But others were well-received. It was becoming clear to Charlotte that the town wanted the project but that they were groping for a way to honor their environmental values.
Eventually Laura Webber spoke from the raised platform where the Council was seated. "Rev. Robinson, may I say something?" she asked. These were the first public words she had spoken since she was appointed to the Council. But all eyes immediately turned to her because everyone seemed to know that Laura held the swing vote on the Council. They expected her to pronounce a verdict.
"I don't think we are ready to make a decision tonight," she said to everyone's surprise. "I am going to ask the Council that we postpone Thursday's scheduled vote for a month. And I'm going suggest that we ask the developer to reconsider his plans so that we can preserve as much of the environment of the glen as possible. As someone said, that may mean re-examining the plans for grading. And it will certainly mean preserving some trees. Perhaps we will be ready to make a decision in a month or two when the developer comes back with some new plans. But one thing that I am hearing loud and clear tonight is that we want progress here in Almond Springs but we are not willing to forfeit our soul. I'm going to ask the Council that we season our progress with an environmental sensitivity."
Laura's comments had an air of conclusion about them. And few people spoke after she sat back down. The meeting ended soon thereafter. The Town Council later ratified her request to the developer and another town meeting was tentatively scheduled for Februrary 20th—pending the ability of the developer to present a new set of plans.