The Braille Monitor October 2000 Edition
by Peggy Elliott
From the Editor: Peggy Elliott is a frequent contributor to these pages. This description of her work as a member of the Grinnell City Council first appeared in Reflecting the Flame, the seventeenth in the NFB's Kernel Book series of paperbacks. It begins with Dr. Maurer's introduction.
Peggy Elliott is a graduate of Yale Law School, a practicing attorney, an elected member of the city council in her community, and Second Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind. An obvious question comes to mind in reading her story, "All In A Day's Work," and it is: What on earth does any of this have to do with blindness? The answer, after a little thought, is equally obvious: everything and nothing.
When a blind person carrying out a responsible role in her community can be sued and threatened just like any other politician, perhaps nothing need be said about blindness. And that, of course, says everything. Here is what she has to say:
I serve on the city council in the City of Grinnell, a town of 9,000 in the quietly beautiful farmland of central Iowa. In my first term I was sued. In my second term my life was threatened. I am serving now in my third term. Oh, and I also happen to be blind.
I could go on and on about the virtues of our community, but I won't. I'll just mention a few things we are doing at the moment. I serve on the finance committee, and we are currently trying to make the budget balance under the pressure of needs and expectations rising faster than revenues. Our community has over 30 percent of its land devoted to non-taxable nonprofits, which add tremendous strength but no tax revenues to the community. We are trying to balance not only the budget but also the need to invest in the future of jobs and residents, by spending today's money to increase the income stream while today's needs for services demand our attention as well. We need more space for the library and more equipment for streets and snow removal, and the airport needs a longer runway to accommodate the business jets our growing industrial base is attracting. We can't do it all. No matter what choices we make, some of our constituents won't like it.
Speaking of not liking it, a handful of disgruntled citizens sued me and my fellow council members when we voted several years ago to sell bonds to do a facelift of our downtown with new street lights and sidewalk repairs throughout the central business district.
Some of our citizens preferred the old, grungy sidewalks and lights so aged we couldn't even buy parts to the slight increase in taxes the improvements meant. The suit garnered an unsalable rating for the bonds until it was resolved, and the momentum for change died. I said to my furious supporters at the time: "We'll be here longer than they will." We now have the new street lights and the smooth sidewalks. And I'm still there.
What about the threat to my life? It came from annexation. I served for quite awhile as chair of the planning committee. And we annexed in two phases: first a lot of contiguous businesses and then a different area of residences. Annexation always raises tempers because taxes are higher inside the city limits for those who have thus far been benefiting from city services but not helping to pay for them. The business owners were vocally unhappy, and I lost some supporters for awhile.
The residential area included a person whose anger reportedly turned to threats. At a meeting I missed, he slapped the person chairing and controlled the meeting by shouting and stomping up and down. We all took the reported threats very seriously since a mayor and two council members had been killed or wounded a year or so earlier in another small Iowa town by a citizen enraged by a dispute over sewer service. I announced that I would not stand for threats or belligerent behavior.
When I opened the meeting I chaired, I described the ground rules of civility and explained that the police chief was there in uniform to enforce them when I asked him to.
The chief had told me in my conference with him before the meeting that he had been ready to eject the unruly citizen the last time but that no one had directed him to do so. I told him I would not hesitate to give such an instruction and would make that clear at the outset of the meeting. I just wanted to be sure he would do as I asked when I asked. He was happy to make the commitment and stood ready during the meeting. The meeting I chaired was orderly, and the annexation proceeded to its successful conclusion.
I recently moved from chairing the planning committee to heading the public works and grounds committee, which oversees the largest part of the city budget, an area in which I have served for my entire time on the council. We do all the building and repair of roads, city services like water and sewer, snow removal, and parks. Before assuming my post, I heard that there was some talk that I shouldn't be appointed because "there are just some things you need a man for." Ha! When I heard that, I decided that my fellow council members had never had the detailed, precise reports I was about to start giving.
Custom before I assumed the chair was for the chair to bring up a topic and then call on city staff to provide details. Not me! My husband says he has never before met someone who can talk happily and at such length about sewers. He has now.
In addition to overseeing all the basic services, we are responsible for expansion, and we are working toward a new million-dollar well. It will assure enough fresh, clean water far into the twenty-first century for our citizens and also, along with the projected million-dollar storage facility that is next, probably bring our fire-fighting rating up to the next level, meaning a reduction in fire insurance costs for every resident.
And we're now embarking on a collaborative effort with the fine liberal arts college here to do a fundamental review of the downtown area and its interaction with the college to find ways of further cooperation so that each (town and gown) can serve the other better. My colleagues on the council have just appointed me as the council representative to this exciting new venture.
As I said before, I could go on and on about our community. But I've given you a flavor of my work on the council. You may be asking by now: What does this have to do with being blind? To me, everything.
I joined the National Federation of the Blind almost thirty years ago while still in high school and before I had earned my law degree and set up my private practice in Grinnell. During my entire adult life I have been an active member of the Federation. The Federation has taught me many things, but two are relevant here. One is that service is good for the individual. We all learn and grow when we accept roles of service. The council has certainly been a fascinating and satisfying learning experience for me.
The other is that I as a blind person can serve and serve well. Any deliberative body works best when its members work out areas of agreement and consensus. I'm one of the six members of the council, and the others need my vote for their projects just as I seek their agreement for things I'm trying to achieve. And, when we get into it, I get the rough edge of others' tongues, whether a citizen's or a fellow council member's, just as readily as do the other five.
My husband says that as a blind person you know you have arrived when people can be mad at you for your ideas and positions and don't try just to be nice to you all the time or shield you from the harsh or the difficult. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that I have achieved that position.
I've learned all sorts of things during my years of service in the National Federation of the Blind. From chairing meetings to forging consensus to sticking to my own beliefs even when I'm in a minority, service in the Federation has taught me much.
But the most important thing of all is that the Federation has taught me to get up out of my chair, go out the door, and find something useful to do because I as a person have something to contribute. The Federation has taught me how to accept and be comfortable with my blindness and then to get out there and teach others around me so that both they and I can get on with our lives.
Before I found the Federation, I doubted that I had anything to give to others, and the people I met who were sighted didn't know any better. Now with the Federation's training, I know how to give and to teach. And I know I can be sued and threatened just like my sighted fellow council members. Service isn't always pleasant, but it is always rewarding.
And my husband is right. We blind people can get in there and be loved or hated for who we are, not sheltered and shunted aside. It's fun to be a part of my community.
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