by Frank Fleischman II (FF3), Lead Editor

I am disappointed in Belleville.

That may sound harsh, especially coming from Your Belleville Watchdog, who prides himself on being a Belleville resident and who deeply believes in our community, if not entirely in its elected leadership. But if you put it in the context of Dr. King’s words in the quote above, perhaps my statement makes sense.

I am writing this piece almost a month to the day after the November 7th school board election. I felt it was important for the official results to be fully tabulated and certified before writing about the election. The official results show that longtime candidate Lissa Missagia and BetterBelleville candidate Brenda Pacheco won a 7-way race.

It also shows that less than 20 percent of Belleville’s approximately 26,300 voters cast a vote in this election.

You Can’t Be Disappointed In Something You Don’t Love

Has a friend, family member or acquaintance ever disappointed you? I’m sure it’s happened. But the reason you were disappointed was because you expected something more or better from that person because you believed in their potential. If you had no regard for that person, you couldn’t be disappointed.

This is how I feel about our beloved Belleville right now. I see its potential, its goodness. But it’s disappointing that our residents didn’t come out to vote.

Come January, four of the seven board of education seats will be occupied by candidates run by Mayor Michael Melham’s political machine. This is an intolerable — and potentially dangerous — condition for any governing body.

Low Voter Turnout Is Enabling The Return Of Political Machine Politics To Belleville

Political apathy is nothing new in Belleville, though in the past 20 years or so it has gotten worse. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, if an important issue came up in town, you could count on groups of people to come to Town Hall meetings to speak about it or oppose it. I think of the proposal in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the Transco Energy Company wanted to put part of a gas pipeline through Belleville, or just around the same time, when a young councilman named Michael Melham spearheaded a plan to fully redevelop the Valley section of Belleville, including still-occupied residential homes. Both plans were defeated thanks to outraged residents joining together in opposition.

But one of the unfortunate realities of Belleville for decades is how few people have come out to vote, especially in local elections. The problem with low voter turnout is that it creates a vacuum that is quickly filled by political opportunists and the power-hungry. For almost 20 years, one person held the keys to political power for any candidate in Belleville who wanted to win election; it wasn’t until 2014 when the Belleville school district announced a nearly $4 million deficit that this person essentially lost his grip on Belleville politics.

Good, transparent government and politics become impossible when one person or even a small group of people wield near-total influence in the process. I had experience with this growing up in a small Essex County town. The town I grew up in had a political organization designed to “keep partisan politics out of government.” The purpose sounded noble, but it also led to essentially one-party rule. Candidates who wanted to serve had to “toe the line” with the organization. It wasn’t until the early 1990s when I and others formed an opposition group that residents of that town were offered a choice.

Belleville seems poised to see a return to machine politics in town. In January, four of the seven school board members will have come from the Better Belleville political machine, essentially run by, or ruled by, Mayor Michael Melham. Gone is the fresh-faced, young comeback artist who jumped back in the political ring after a nearly 15-year absence from Belleville politics; now Belleville voters see the man who is interested only in political power, be it on the Town Council or the Board of Education.

The fact that the school board majority will be made up of trustees from one organization does not necessarily imply that they all do the bidding of the person who ran their campaign. Then again, in 2021, two BetterBelleville school board trustees did vote to lease Mayor Melham’s property at 335 Union Avenue for board offices. However, democracy thrives on political competition and the (hopefully civil) clash of different ideas and perspectives.

To Preserve Belleville As A Great Community, Residents Need To Vote And Participate

In the past couple of years, even before Covid, public meetings in Belleville — particularly Town Council and Board of Education meetings — have been livestreamed or recorded, either by the governing body itself or by concerned residents. Usually, the camera is only on the elected officials themselves, so people can’t see the audience.

If you want better leaders, better government and better policies, you have to demand better. The best way to accomplish that is by voting and by attending public meetings.

Here’s the thing: the in-person audience at these meetings is often small, if not non-existent. Many people show up to Board of Education meetings for student awards and presentations, but often leave before when the board begins its business portion. That leaves maybe a handful of people in the audience. Town Council meetings are usually attended by the same people every two weeks, except for the occasional fresh face bringing concerns to the Town Council.

Again, I believe in Belleville. It’s a special, unique and welcoming town. If we want to keep it that way and protect it from the power-hungry and those who would change it into something it isn’t while having no stake in the town, we all need to do better. Inform yourselves about candidates for public office, and plan to attend Town Council/Board of Education meetings. I can appreciate how hard it is to do so after a hard day at work and taking care of your family, but if you want better for yourself and your community, you need to demand better.

It all begins and ends with an act of faith: that your opinion and concerns — and your power as a voter, resident, and taxpayer — matter.