DO THE WRITING: Taxation without Representation | Opinion

For those of us in Geneva who have to pay our property taxes in two instalments, the final payment is due at the end of the month. I wrote my check on Wednesday, the date of the municipal council. I had planned to go talk about a few issues that I was concerned about, especially the many ways we could generate more revenue to offset our property taxes, but I decided my time was better spent staying home and watching “Jeopardy”. Why? Because I realize that I lost all my representation on the board two years ago.

From November 2019 to the summer of 2020, I had engaged in a positive and encouraging dialogue with my elected officials. My ward councilor (Bill Pealer Jr.), the two general councilors (Frank Gaglianese III and Anthony Noone) and Mayor Steve Valentino certainly disagreed with me on every issue, but each of them seemed interested in talk about policies that would continue to build on the positive momentum from Geneva. There have been emails about improving the nomination process, phone calls about sales tax distribution agreements with the county, in-person discussions about the history of trying to move to a distribution more equitable fees for tax-exempt properties to contribute fairly to city services. They seemed interested in what had been tried before and what might work better now.

Party affiliation didn’t seem to matter at the time. The idea was that Geneva needed sensible and focused leadership.

To be clear, my term on city council ended in 2016 and I had no desire to return, but each of us has a role to play in continuing to improve our community, and as residents, that means to discuss, question, and offer feedback to those who serve now.

At first, this new group seemed receptive to the duties of the work they had undertaken. But then, something happened.

It would be too easy to blame covid, although the isolation and inability to see people face to face certainly contributed to the problem. A fear seemed to invade these representatives. Communication with anyone who did not give them an “atta boy” was seen as threatening. The responses they gave to dissenting opinions became either sarcastic or dismissive, or both. And then, less than a year into their term, they just stopped responding to the things they disagreed with (at this point, I have to exclude Mayor Valentino from that representation. Him, due to both disposition and experience, continued to respond in a professional manner).

There is no law that says elected officials should read their emails or letters, let alone respond to them. The rules of procedure for council meetings suggest that councilors should not address people who come to ask questions of the council, although answers are expected to be given later. There is certainly no obligation on elected officials to read and consider information contained in newspapers or staff reports, or to attempt to clarify their decisions to the public. But we all need to remember that city council is a job. This is a paid position, “hired” by us. So it seems reasonable to think that counselors should try to get things done and not just show up to meetings to antagonize people they don’t like.

But all of the issues that my reps discussed during and immediately after the election – dealing with zombie properties, improving tenancy terms, getting our fair share of county and landfill funding and tax-exempt properties, making the more transparent and accountable government, improving recreation, and better coordinating opportunities and services — they are now voting against. When I try to ask them why they changed their minds on all these issues of economic development and quality of life, they don’t answer.

Do they mean by the “silent majority”? Vote against and never explain why?

The only thing they say, clearly and repeatedly, is that they don’t like and don’t want to hear from anyone who supports police accountability. Can’t we walk and chew gum at the same time?

The elect must remember that they are there to do the work of the people, to leave the place better than they found it. These college antics don’t serve any of us well.

So, as we all pay our tax bills, we need to pause to examine the quality of our representation – not just on a single issue, but in terms of ideas for a better Geneva.

Jackie Augustine lives with her three children in Geneva, where she served on the city council for 16 years. An ethics trainer at Keuka College, she is also co-director of the Seneca7 relay race. His “Doing the Write Thing” column appears every other Tuesday. Email him at [email protected]