If you like shouting, taunting, comedic stunts complete with props and passionate political appeals, Norton City Council is your kind of place.
Meetings are at 7 p.m. Mondays. Show up early, the parking lot can fill up when they have a humdinger scheduled.
As Beacon Journal reporter Paula Schleis chronicled in Sunday’s paper, Norton has been a political hotbed since it became a village in 1961.
The latest issue is about installing sewers, but there have been many more.
The issues can be as complicated as the science of bacterial growth in effluent or as simple as patching a road.
But none are as complex as understanding human emotion.
People on both sides feel insulted and misunderstood after the repeated controversies. They yearn for respect. But they struggle when asked to suggest solutions.
“My grandma and grandpa and my mom and dad, everyone that grew up in Norton told me it’s been this way for a long time,” said Danny Grether, who takes over as Ward 2 councilman in January. “It’s going to take somebody strong to step forward to change that.”
Grether said he doesn’t know who that person could be, but expects to join three other new council members in trying to renew the stature of the city’s government.
“There seems to be, in some cases, a lack of respect,” he said. “Maybe it’s just people are getting so frustrated and so attacked that they become more aggressive in their language and more aggressive in the way that they are treating each other. And that is both sides of the podium, that’s our elected officials and that’s our residents as well. And so I think everyone needs to calm down. The problem is these issues are so passionate and so personal.”
Money at issue
With the sewer issue, many residents say they can’t afford the basic assessment, which engineers estimate to be $8,250, let alone the thousands more they might pay to run lines to their homes and disable their septic tanks. Estimates as high as $30,000 have been thrown about, but no one will know for sure until the work is actually done.
The city’s finances are tight, too. Council members worry where they will find the money to fix roads. Some city employees haven’t seen raises since 2008. Now the city faces a Dec. 10 ballot issue to limit homeowners’ sewer construction costs to $5,000 that would shift those costs to the city.
It all adds up to disaster, according to Council President Don Nicolard, who was defeated by Grether.
“I think, right now, the city is doomed,” he said.
Asked to offer a solution, he was equally pessimistic.
“It’s an easy question that’s really hard to answer,” he said. “The canned answer would be ‘We all have to work together and we all have to support the new council and we have to work together for a better future for the city.’ ”
Rick Rodgers, who will be Ward 1’s new councilman, said he hopes the city keeps its political passion.
“I think it’s good that people get involved,” he said. “I think it’s great to see people come to meetings … and more important to ream me up if they think I’ve been off-focus or off-base on anything. I want to be told, because I’m representing them. I want their input. … We are going to survive all of this. And getting back to how to calm things down, again it goes to being upfront with people.”
Their own facts
Part of the problem comes when factions work with different facts.
The administration, trying to assure residents the sewers will be affordable, reminds homeowners that they can finance the costs over 20 years. But leaders often are forced to admit their figures are only estimates and can increase.
Critics of the administration often quote prices from different locations or bills that include a host of other charges.
Norton residents can’t even agree on whether the city was compelled to build the project, at least until a binding agreement was signed earlier this month.
Mayor Mike Zita and former Administrator Rick Ryland said it has been difficult to know what their opponents want. At first, the administration concluded, the residents simply opposed sewers. As threats from the EPA became stronger and sewer construction looked more likely, their opponents disagreed and started arguing more about the cost of the project.
Zita takes a hard line on the issue.
“Policies get put in place, whether they are policies or laws,” he said. “Laws get made. The sewer issue is a prime example. You talk to different people, you get different stories, but at the end of the day, there is a law.”
Nicolard set a similar tone.
“It’s black, it’s white, it’s not gray,” he said. “And here it is, the EPA is coming, if you don’t like it, the EPA is coming.”
If it’s not sewers…
The new councilmen said that facts-are-facts approach was too harsh for people who believe the sewer bills could put them out of their homes.
Paul Tousley, the new Ward 4 councilman, said he concluded the administration didn’t care.
“Even if they showed some kind of concern, I don’t think people would have fallen right into line, but I think it would be better,” he said.
Dennis Pierson won in Ward 3, which includes Nash Heights. He said the city lacked a personal touch in telling people sewers were coming.
“If you explained to these folks every aspect of this, they never would have had the push back they did,” he said. “But when the council and the administration came forward, and particularly the administrator came forward and told the people ‘Look, this is how it’s going to be. If you don’t like it we will just condemn your septic, rule your house is uninhabitable. We will force you out.”
A chance to heal?
With both sides considering the construction of sewers inevitable, their attention now moves to deciding who will pay for them.
But as issues come and go, the stridency of Norton politics has lasted decades. The council chamber has heard debates about the police department, city employee pay raises, party affiliations and, most of all, finances.
Perhaps a hint of the next debate came Nov. 18 following a presentation on a proposed water conservancy district with the promise of flood control.
William Paluch, proponent of the Dec. 10 issue that would limit the cost of Nash Heights’ sewer district, noted homeowners would be taxed to finance the district.
Red-faced, standing only a few feet away from the man who had presented the plans, he shouted: “NO MORE ASSESSMENTS!”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or email@example.com. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.