Citizens’ group leads fight to get Staunton City Council to listen
What is it with Republicans not wanting people to vote or participate in government? Dumb question, obvious answer.
The latest battleground is the City of Staunton, which for the next four years is under the thumb of a 4-3 Republican City Council majority, an odd happenstance from last May’s COVID-19 elections.
Odd, because Staunton, in November, gave Joe Biden a 10-point win over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election – even gave Nicholas Betts, a Democrat who barely registered a ripple in his challenge to incumbent Republican Sixth District Congressman Ben Cline, a two-point win.
Since taking office on July 1, the new Republican majority has gone out of its way to close ranks, the most recent manifestation coming in the form of the end to a popular call-in feature that had been added to City Council meetings to accommodate residents who wanted to participate in deliberations at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A citizens’ group has emerged to challenge the City Council move, and its members are pledging to fight for the right to be heard for as long as it takes.
“City Council members are voted in to represent everyone in the community, and we were seeing that that wasn’t happening when residents aren’t able to express their views, to give their opinions, whether it’s related to city ordinances, or just speaking on matters to the public,” group member Sheila Ahmadi said.
“This is shutting down people’s right to engage and let the City Council members know what we want, and it has caused a lot of anger with regard to people who we vote in to take on the responsibility of representing us and taking on the response or supposedly take on the responsibilities to, to listen to what we want,” Ahmadi said.
“Every Stanton citizen who wants the opportunity to comment on the issues that City Council is discussing should be entitled to that opportunity. When we start eliminating the call-in option, then all of the sudden, they’re cut off and their voices are suppressed. That is not an inclusive government, which is what they their vision statement mission statement says, that they pride themselves on how inclusive they are as a city government,” member Anne Hunter said.
It’s personal for resident Jennifer Trippeer, for whom disabilities are a barrier to being able to get to City Hall for lengthy City Council meetings.
“I’ve been disabled in a couple of ways for a number of years, and it changes your perspective. You see the community from a different light,” Trippeer said. “It was wonderful not only to be able to listen to City Council, which I do appreciate that they that they broadcast it, but also to participate, to be able to share what my thoughts and my concerns are, and to hear what other citizens are saying. Because that gives me new ideas as well, and I think that’s really critical. It’s one of those rare times when the community can gather together and share.”
We’re seeing Republican majority state legislatures rolling back voting rights. A majority of Republicans in Congress voted to decertify the 2020 presidential election results because they didn’t like them.
What you’re seeing in Staunton is a local manifestation of this trend toward oligarchy.
They don’t want you to vote, when you do vote, they don’t want it to count if they don’t like how you vote, and they sure as heck don’t want to have to listen to your piddling suggestions.
“I have been participating in City Council meetings for between three and four years now, and have really valued that local self-government is to me a big priority, because the decisions that are made by your city government, with ideally the input from citizens, are the things that impact us directly. I have always cherished the opportunity to participate in public hearings and matter from the public,” Hunter said.
“The city has the funds, they have the technology, and hopefully, they will have the reckoning within themselves to know that what they’re doing isn’t right. We elect them to speak in a way that’s representative of everyone, not a select few,” Ahmadi said.
“COVID brought a lot of trauma to a lot of people, but it brought us a blessing in that we learned that we can communicate through Zoom or other such methods, and we’ve learned that government can proceed, businesses can proceed. And to know that we were able to do that for a year, and then to have it taken away, it felt it feels like our voices have been silenced,” Trippeer said.
“That’s our cry. Don’t silence our voices,” Trippeer said. “We care. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t be participating. And it feels like our rights have been stripped away. So if we can help people understand the variety, there’s a vast different array of disabilities. It isn’t just someone who’s in a wheelchair, which is significant. But there are invisible illnesses. And parents with young children who can’t afford to leave their homes and go to an extended City Council meeting. I hope that our speaking out will bring awareness to City Council into the community.”
Story by Chris Graham