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Bureaucratic Self Service

Photo by Bob Fitch, Courtesy of Montpelier Alive.
Most of us in central Vermont live in fear of a repeat of last summer’s catastrophic floods. We vividly recall the relentless downpour beginning on July 10, culminating in a record 5.28 inches of rainfall — the largest single-day total since records began in 1948. After two days this onslaught left Montpelier’s downtown submerged under three feet of water. The damage to government buildings alone topped $7.5 million, to say nothing of the devastation inflicted on homes and businesses still struggling to recover over a year later.

Given accelerating global warming and Montpelier’s precarious location in a flood plain, we are absolutely certain to face another inundating deluge. And if the climate scientists’ most dire projections hold true, the next one could be far more destructive and arrive much sooner than any of us imagine. We need robust and rapid preparation for this inevitability. When I attended the May 23 forum hosted by the Montpelier Commission on Recovery and Resilience, I was hoping to hear such preparations were underway.

Instead, I was surprised that Commissioner Marc Gwinn said Montpelier has an “excellent” emergency plan “for their operations and keeping things going, but there are other things out in the community that are simply not the city’s job. They’re our job, they’re your job.” 

But one might wonder, “excellent” for whom?” 

For me, when Gwinn made that remark, the coin dropped. Our city bureaucracy has an “excellent” emergency response plan, just not one that includes citizens and businesses. Talk about self serving. This approach seems reminiscent of the U.S. plans in the event of a nuclear war, which focus on keeping the U.S. government safe and running in underground bunkers. 

And if Montpelier gets hit by a flood again, this emergency response plan will again support the city government, while citizens or businesses will need our own flotation devices. 

When friends brought up this glaring lack of citizen support with city council members, they professed being unaware of such an exclusionary plan. They offered only to look into it with City Manager Bill Fraser, and as of the latest updates, those same friends have yet to receive follow-up information or clarification in response to their concerns.

The issue did at least generate vigorous discussion during the May forum roundtable sessions. But the core premise merely framed the necessity for “We The People” to take it upon ourselves to envision and attempt to organize a separate, parallel emergency response apparatus — one overseen by the same commissioners who are supposedly crafting such a plan. This necessary, citizen-led initiative would then require hiring “qualified consultants” to instruct local residents on the prescribed protocols and responsibilities to shoulder (although, in this case, the consultants are led by Erica Bornemann, former director of Vermont Emergency Management). This undoubtedly expensive and cumbersome undertaking for a city government already effectively insolvent and slashing budgets at every turn.

Have you ever noticed that government bureaucrats who can’t make decisions themselves defer to high-priced consultants to tell them what they are supposed to think? These consultants compile their ideas in fat folders that nobody bothers to read, much less enact. Recently, our school bureaucrats have paid consultants more than $60,000 for services such as a proposed $110 million new high school, rather than much lower-
cost alternatives. Such grandiosity insults our inflation-ravaged citizens who voted down the first school budget.

This brings up a larger point: we’re suffering from a dependency on people who get paid for protecting their own jobs rather than making hard decisions and getting their hands dirty. A number of the volunteers serving on the Commission on Recovery and Resilience are functionaries in the state government or management bureaucrats and consultants for nonprofits that populate our capital. 

Don’t get me wrong. Our commission members are not faceless functionaries out of a Kafka novel. They are all good, honest, and caring people, who genuinely want to do the right thing. But their frame of reference is incapable of imagining the disasters looming in our near future. 

Rather than pursue decisive, proactive action commensurate with the growing risks, their instinct is to commission more protracted policy review designed to avoid any unseemly disruption to the political status quo. All the while, the clock runs down on the precious time still remaining to brace for potentially shattering environmental, social, and economic undulations already being locked in by ecological dynamics underway.

To those of us bearing the brunt of these compounding threats, it’s become jarringly apparent that we simply can’t rely on the authorities to safeguard our basic security and well-being in the harrowing years ahead. We’ve reached an inflection point where nothing short of vociferous collective action demanding accountability and substantive, inclusive emergency preparedness initiatives will suffice. It’s time to elevate our voices and start pressuring our elected and appointed leaders until they finally hear — and more importantly, heed — our calls for resilient adaptation before the next deluge arrives.

And make no mistake, it is coming — potentially far sooner and with more ferocity than most are willing to admit. The only uncertainty that remains is whether our state and city’s stewardship will rouse itself to meet this existential imperative head-on, and quickly.

The material presented here represents the opinion of the author and does not reflect the opinions of The Bridge. Commentaries may be submitted to editor@montpelierbridge.com. Preference is given to submissions by those who live in central Vermont. Submissions are encouraged to be 500 to 750 words in length.