My friend Anthony and I find new ways to have the same argument each morning at Fuel Coffee Shop. It’s about the role government plays in our life. Somehow I’ve been transformed from a perennial protestor into a government defender. Mainly because Anthony has almost nothing good to say about it.

If you have a pesky ghost, who are you going to call? For me, it’s always been Ghostbusters. When it comes to protecting public health and safety, for all its built-in limitations, I’d rather call Government than Big Business. The lesser of evils. Sure there’s corruption and bureaucratic incompetence, but there’s no compelling, unrelenting need for profit. That’s a big one for me.

Anyway, this is all a long way around to admitting that events here in Great Barrington are pushing me toward Anthony’s corner.

There are several new developments to the drama of Main Street Redevelopment. We have a Special Town Meeting on Wednesday February 9, 2011. In a matter of days, 216 residents signed a petition asking the town to vote on whether we should withdraw our application for $3.8 million dollars from the Massachusetts Highway Department to fund the project.

We’ve recently learned that the Selectmen and Town Manager and Town Counsel all believe this will be a “non-binding vote.” And they have signaled their determination to go ahead with the project no matter what the voters have to say.

This is one of those “been there, done that” moments for me. Anyone who came out of the 1960s still breathing has seen this scenario play out before. People in power, often with the best of intentions, become convinced that they know better. They have better information, better advisors, and a better plan. They see the big picture. The long-term. You can say it a dozen different ways. But in my experience, this scenario never ends well. An opportunity for mutual respect and a chance for cooperation and compromise becomes a contest, a conflict, and a power struggle.

Already, some Selectmen are suggesting that the petitioners are a “vocal minority.” Somehow some very successful hardworking businesspeople have been transformed from concerned citizens to complainers. For the record, I do not know Chip Elitzer. I do know that he very generously works to ensure that our local students have the computer resources they need to learn in today’s digital universe. I do know that he tried to bring affordable, competitive baseball to Pittsfield. Now some of the Selectboard are implying he’s irresponsible for suggesting that downtown merchants may suffer losses up to 40% if the project continues.

But Chip Elitzer didn’t conjure that figure up out of thin air. It was reported by an experienced businessman, based on personal experience living through a similar downtown reconstruction project.

I’ve had several merchants tell me they may well have to close their stores.

Of course no one knows for sure. But most important of all, before the project has even begun, we are becoming a divided community.

I’ve been waiting for the Selectboard and Town Manager to appreciate this danger, to come up with a series of alternatives, to acknowledge that people are concerned not out of some short-term blindness but because they truly care about this town.

At every meeting I’ve attended, I’ve been impressed by how much everyone cares about the town. How everyone appreciates the character of our downtown. I’ve watched, and lived through, the transformation of Great Barrington. The people who are against this Main Street Reconstruction are not afraid of the future, do not fear progress. They fear the destruction of its charm. They want to retain what is unique, possibly eccentric about Main Street.

Of course, they want the cracks in the sidewalk to be patched. Of course, they want effectively synchronized traffic lights and well-engineered safe crosswalks. If they are suspicious at this point, it may be because they sense inflexibility on the part of the decision-makers.

For the fact is that the advocates of this project have changed their justifications for the project several times over the past year. I reluctantly supported the project when we were told that the underground infrastructure was in need of serious repair and we would soon need to tear up Main Street to get at the pipes to repair them. Only later did we learn that wasn’t accurate.

What about alternate scenarios? How much would it cost to make these changes as needed, over ten years, not two summers? What other, more modest grants are available? What about starting a fundraising-drive for contributions for new trees? I was one of a small group who raised money for our park benches.

Ours is a representative government. When government fails to accurately or adequately represent the wishes of the governed, they will find redress.

The Berkshire Record, January 20, 2010. © Mickey Friedman