written for the Roosevelt Borough Bulletin, Summer 1990
A group of us in Roosevelt banded together to publicize the plight
of our small town and our water/sewage-treatment problems. This
was an article written for our local newspaper about our
activities. We managed to accomplish a lot, including articles
in the New York Times as well as most of the New Jersey
newspapers and news media outlets. The NJ DEP ultimately
took a 'kinder and gentler' approach to Roosevelt, coupled with
an upgrade of our sewage-treatment facilities.
Roosevelt Water Action Report/Manifesto
'Why'd ya wanna go and do that for?"
Indeed, what has been the purpose
behind the "Water Action" activities over the summer? What have they
accomplished? The concerts have certainly been nice and the "publicity
stunts" were sort of fun, but how can these things possibly help Roosevelt
in grappling with the DEP/water/sewer problem?
First some history:
At the beginning of June this past summer -- after there had been some time
for the incredible monthly water/sewer bills to really sink in -- a
group of us got together to try to articulate some ideas which might
help alleviate the sewage treatment plant financial problems. Out
of this informal gathering, a general invitation to all Roosevelt
residents was issued to attend a "brainstorming" meeting held at Borough
HaIl. We were hoping that at least a few storms forming in the brains
of our neighbors might point the way to some positive steps we could
take to deal with the monster growing in our sewers. A number of terrific
ideas did come out of the meeting. What I remember most about the
meeting, however, was the structure of the discourse that day, and
the overarching philosophy of the "Water Action" group which was shaped
by that structure. The meeting sort of went like this --
Recognition that the sewer problem is larger than the town.
This is what brought us together for the meeting in the first place. I
don't know anyone who can afford to throw away the money we are being
required to pay by the State for our sewage treatment plant problem.
We simply cannot pay the price. Roosevelt was built using outside
funding, and the community was never designed to undertake major overhauls
of the infrastructure without some assistance. Many of us also felt
that the money we are spending on our relatively benign problem was
completely out-of-line given the much more difficult and terrible
environmental problems facing New Jersey. Who set the priorities in
such a manner that small communities were being hit so hard? Why is
so much of our paychecks going towards a problem with such little
Realization that we have no recourse through "normal" channels.
Most of the traditional funding sources for our situation have vanished.
Among the programs remaining (and indeed for many of the past grant
programs), Roosevelt probably doesn't qualify or would be placed low
on the priority list. Many of these grants also require significant
expenditures just to apply. We also have none of that mysterious commodity
known as clout. We have few votes, we have fewer Big Money operations
which could make a nice PAC contribution to the appropriate politico,
and we have no high-level State or Federal policy-makers currently
living in town.
Formulation of positive actions.
This is where the meeting really
started to take off. Yes, we have no clout, no money, no hope, but
we still have our ability to make the world aware of what is happening
here in Roosevelt. Perhaps we could band together with other small
communities (Roosevelt is certainly not alone in this predicament).
Perhaps we can work through the New Jersey League of Municipalities
to get some legislation passed at the Statehouse to help us. We can
write letters to our local area legislators screaming that we can't
be forced to comply with these ridiculous mandates. From this idea
springs the recognition that we can attract State lawmakers' attention
through the news media... publicity stunts. And so the initial "Water
Action" activities were born.
But there is more to it than this. The
feeling permeating the environment of the meeting was one of moving
forward, actually getting out to do something for the town. Positive
(I must digress from the report on the "Water Action" activities a
bit here, for I have a few things to get off my chest; especially
when I contrast "negative" actions with the "positive action" feeling
of the meeting. I cannot understand the logic which makes it important
to seek constantly to fix past blame for our town's contemporary problems.
At best, this negative, nonproductive activity causes ill-will between
neighbors who should be working in concert to solve a serious problem.
At worst, it provides fuel for the DEP's claim that Roosevelt should
be forced into paying an unconscionable amount of money. It's easy
to speculate about what should or should not have been done -- we should
have stopped the escalation of the Viet Nam conflict, we should not
have dropped the bomb on Japan -- but what is the point? How can this
help us with our current situation? How does tearing down a thermometer
(three times) placed on the common bulletin board showing how many
letters have been sent to legislators assist the town? What good does
it do for the community to underline and highlight only the negative
aspects of articles about the town hung on the bulletin board?)
Keeping It Politically Neutral
Because of the overheated political
atmosphere existing in Roosevelt, we all agreed that it was imperative
to keep the "Water Action" activities as politically neutral (in the
local sense) as possible. Of course this is impossible, but the approach
we decided to take was one of individual initiative. Rather than organize
the group to death, we felt that the impetus for any 'Water Action"
activity should come from individuals. If any political motivation
could be gleaned from the "Water Action" events, then the responsibility
for this would be upon the individual who organized and promoted the
particular event. One of the gratifying aspects of the "Water Action"
meetings is that people from across the local political boundaries
(and yes these do exist here in
Roosevelt) are working together to help bring aid to the town. In
actuality, I feel that the responsibility for charges of local political
favoritism in the 'Water Action" activities lies with the people who
choose not to get involved. If you don't agree with the way certain
individuals represent the town, then the challenge is to create your
Having an Effect
This challenge is meant in all seriousness, because
the 'Water Action" activities and stunts are having a positive effect.
Ten articles (several on the front page) featuring the Roosevelt problem
have appeared in five area newspapers during the past several months.
Nearly all have been sympathetic to our plight. Several Philadelphia-area
television stations have expressed interest in our developing story,
and the New Jersey Network is considering an in-depth look at our
situation. We are creating media momentum with our on-going series
of weekend concerts, plus the money from these concerts can be used
to provide funding for more actions in the coming months. Politicians
pay attention to the media, especially when the story can work to their own
political advantage. There now exists the possibility that legislation
will be introduced in the next legislative session to provide relief
for Roosevelt. Our "clout" is our big mouths.
What about the coming
months? Pointing to the concept of individual initiative, I will say
that the future is really in your hands. I have some ideas for things
I might try to organize, but I certainly hope (and I doubt) that I
am alone. We are making a difference, and we are making it in a positive
way. I invite each and every one of the townspeople of Roosevelt to
join in the battle to resist the steamrolling of small towns-doing
whatever you can, however you can do it. Roosevelt has never been
a town of the "silent majority", let's use our vocal cords now!