Small Town Government (part 1 of 2)

The Curmudgeon admits to being a bit of a big-city snob. Born, raised, and educated in Philadelphia, he lived there for 46 years and is confident he will always think of himself as a Philadelphian. He finds suburban living only somewhat tolerable, but this is where life has taken him. When Mrs. Curmudgeon wants to tease her husband she simply asks, “Where do you live?”

The Curmudgeon has written in the past (here, here, and elsewhere) about Marlton, the first New Jersey town in which he lived, and observed that one of the biggest differences between living in a city and living in a suburb is that when you live in a city and your government is about to do something stupid or harmful you read about it in the newspaper beforehand but when you live in the suburbs and your government does something stupid or harmful you only learn about it after the fact. That’s because suburban newspapers are, in general, pretty awful. Most of them are just advertising rags with harmless, information-free articles sandwiched between ads for realtors, tree-trimming companies, funeral homes, and people who, incredibly, will come to your house once a week to scoop the dog poop out of your yard.

Marriage brought The Curmudgeon to a new town in New Jersey. Haddonfield is an upper-middle class community that makes this boy from a working-class part of Philadelphia very uncomfortable. It is Mayberry with money. The Curmudgeon has numerous bones to pick with the town, some of them real and some no doubt imagined, because he’s that kind of guy, but that’s not on his agenda today. It’s not even on his agenda tomorrow, when he will post a piece about his adopted home’s government.

As bad as most suburban newspapers tend to be, there’s one paper that covers several communities around the Haddonfield area that does a reasonably good job. It’s called The Retrospect, although when referring to it in conversation The Curmudgeon inevitably calls it “The Prospect,” which is an even sillier name for a newspaper. The Retrospect makes a real effort to cover government, which is what The Curmudgeon wants most from newspapers, but on occasion its oh-so-serious attempt at journalism only highlights some of the really, really strange things that some suburban residents find really, really important.

Like lights in the downtown. The following comes from a recent edition of The Retrospect and is about a town near Haddonfield called Haddon Heights (which is not to be confused with Haddonfield or Haddon Township).

Yeah, it makes The Curmudgeon’s head hurt, too.

It’s more than this, but not much more

The subject: whether the town should string additional lights around its downtown. Just one little piece of background information: the town’s “downtown” consists of just a couple of blocks of fairly shabby storefronts.

From The Retrospect:

Four strands of lights, to be hung in four new places on Station Avenue lamp posts close to the borough’s centerpiece train station, at the same time as the traditional holiday lighting, caused a small controversy at Tuesday evening’s Haddon Heights council meeting, with the council set to vote on the resolution authorizing the project. 

Civic business group Heights in Progress, which raised funds for and donated the 65-foot light strands last December, had also consulted local historic preservation expert (and Heights resident) Margaret Westfield on the most effective and “flowing” way to hang the light strands, and she was in attendance to assure council that her design is “predicated on this part of town being a historic district.’

 “The idea is to start small,” she said, and then possibly add more decorative – not holiday – lighting in the business district.   Joe Gentile, founder and director of Heights in Progress, who was also present at the meeting, said his group is in favor of decorative lighting on the street year-round. “We need to add some walkability to our downtown, not just during the holidays” said Gentile, “and more lights is a good start.”

The story resumes.

Not everyone in town is in favor of the new strands. During the public comment section, resident Marshall Hatfield asked detailed questions about height requirements over driveways, guide wire clearances, electrical specifications, and total electricity expenditure.

“My personal opinion is that borough council is using this holiday lighting ‘test’ without thorough research, without any criteria for success, and authorizing something that will conflict with the historic rhythm of the Haddon Heights Historic Business District on Station Avenue…The proposed lighting is more appropriate for holiday tree lots, backyard and restaurant patios,” he said.

 Councilwoman Kathy Lange assured Hatfield and the rest of the council that although the resolution was to be voted on at this meeting, the project is still subject to PSE&G approval, but that she had already ascertained the electricity cost is minimal under PSE&G’s municipal winter rate. She also reminded Hatfield that, as charter president of the Heights Preservation Society, she “has the bona fides, and would never support any project that would hurt the historic heritage” of Haddon Heights.

And that’s the hot issue in a town that’s just minutes from where The Curmudgeon lives.

Pretty spicy, eh?

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