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Presume positive intent

Locations: Columns, Opinion Published

By Ben Bohmfalk

Recently I have noticed a heightened level of angst in locals’ discourse about where our town is heading. Specifically, some of the discourse in emails, letters, and on social media about 8th Street sidewalks, new development along 133, and the Main Street summer closure has veered from constructive dialogue to negative attacks. I see the outrage over Michael Francisco’s arrest as a separate issue which would rightly cause citizens to question the direction of our local government regardless of when it happened, but its timing has coincided with these other issues and the emotions have carried over. My theory is that there are two main causes of this trend, and that if we pause and reflect on those causes, we can shift back to the constructive civil discourse that makes Carbondale great, and enables us to make positive decisions together as a community.
I think the main cause of the deterioration in how we talk about local issues is pandemic fatigue. When the pandemic forced the Carbondale Board of Trustees and our commissions to adapt to Zoom meetings, we decided to keep moving forward with public processes and decisions rather than bring the Town’s business to a halt. That has mostly worked surprisingly well, and even increased the public’s ability to participate in some meetings. But after a full year of virtual interactions, we’re all sick of it. The lack of face-to-face interaction hinders communication and makes it harder to remember that we’re all human, doing our best in a tough time. We all have fewer conversations with our friends and neighbors than normal, and more digital interactions than we’d like. You may not bump into people around town and learn about an issue until a decision has been made, leaving you feeling left out of the public process.
I think the other main cause of this angst is that a lot of development that was years in the making is now getting built, so the pace of change seems to have accelerated during the pandemic. A sign of how much we all love our little town is how worried we get when we see new buildings going up. None of us want Carbondale to grow in ways that threaten the qualities that caused each of us to move here or stay here, and the construction sites along the highway cause many of us to wonder where we’re headed. Combine that with the isolation and stress of the pandemic, and it’s easy to feel that your local government is disconnected from the locals themselves. The reality is that this is exactly the kind of development that we, as a community, chose to embrace over the past decade or more. Everything being built today is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan (2013) and Unified Development Code (2016), both adopted before any of the current Trustees were elected. Our current staff, commissions, and trustees continue to refine these plans to better meet changing times, while maintaining our commitment to accommodating compact development within our town core rather than sprawling out into surrounding open space.
So, what can we do to shift back to constructive dialogue?
First, presume positive intent. Remember that Town Trustees, volunteer commissioners, Town staff, and others involved in the public process are good people with good intentions. So are the people you disagree with about a specific decision. Share your perspective and criticize poor policy in order to make it better, but stop short of attacking the individuals involved.
Second, talk to people. All of the negativity I’ve referenced has been expressed digitally, not in face-to-face conversation. Rather than venting on Facebook or on an email, take a moment to talk to someone about your concerns. Every Carbondale trustee and the mayor have our phone numbers and/or email addresses posted on the town’s website, and we would be happy to find a time to meet up and chat. Talk to your friends and neighbors to get their perspectives too, and don’t take what you see on social media as representative of reality.
Lastly, check out some of the resources at carbondalegov.org, where you can find the Comprehensive Plan (under Planning and Zoning Commission), YouTube recordings of recent meetings (under Mayor and Trustees), and full packets of information for every meeting. You’ll find that our community planning documents are well thought-out and that our meetings are open, civil, and deliberative. I hope this transparency helps restore trust in our public processes.
I look forward to returning to in-person public meetings, bumping into more people in local businesses and on the street, and discussing residents’ concerns in face-to-face conversation very soon. Disagreement and debate are healthy parts of local decision-making. Let’s just remember that we’re all neighbors, we all love this town dearly, and we’re all doing our best in challenging times.
Ben Bohmfalk has served on Carbondale’s Board of Town Trustees since April 2016. He previously was chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission and currently works as a technology facilitator for the Roaring Fork School District.

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