West End Residents Rebuke Neighborhood Organization

The City of Hartford deemed that the food pantry run by Grace Seventh-Day Adventist Church on Prospect Avenue was not in violation of zoning laws, but the decision made by the West End Civic Association Board earlier this month to pursue closure of the food pantry in this particular location has left many in the West End feeling like their voices were not heard by the neighborhood organization.

After a meeting of the West End’s Southwest Sector, an open letter was created on these issues:

September 27, 2013

An Open Letter to Members of the WECA Board

WECA’s Southwest Sector met Tuesday evening, September 24, and discussed at length the recent actions taken by WECA regarding the food pantry run by the church adjacent to Elizabeth Park on Prospect Avenue. We were deeply disturbed and disappointed by the WECA Board’s actions, and we wish to bring the following points to the Board’s attention in the hope that the Board will take them into consideration in the future.

1. We regret and disagree with the motion passed by the Board at its September meeting regarding WECA’s position on the food pantry. We feel that the decision behind the motion was not only wrong with regard to the facts—there were, evidently, no zoning or licensing problems with the food pantry—but more importantly as a matter of principle. An organization that looks to its bylaws and finds “zoning enforcement” before “social responsibility” and “helping those in need” is not an organization of which we can be proud members.

2. We want to state clearly that we support the concept of food pantries as a welcoming, inclusive, and humane practice and a means of reaching out to individuals in our neighborhood, in greater Hartford, and beyond. Moreover, we feel strongly that this sort of service to humanity far outweighs the inconveniences of crowded sidewalks or traffic slowdowns.

3. We deplore the harm that WECA’s actions have done to the organization’s good name and reputation, and especially the harm it has done to us in the esteem of those we struggle most to reach and embrace: the neighborhood’s low-income and needy residents. While sound decision-making cannot be based primarily on “public relations,” this was not sound decision-making, and we strongly urge the WECA Board to take steps to repair WECA’s reputation as a welcoming, inclusive, socially responsible organization rather than one devoted to its wealthier members’ material comforts. While these steps should certainly include outreach to the church, it must also go beyond that to ensure those whose impression of WECA has been soured might come to view us in a better light.

4. Most importantly, we are deeply disappointed in the decision-making process that led to this deplorable decision, and we urge WECA to take steps to make sure that this sort of misguided practice ceases.

a. First, we feel that the rush to judgment at the September Board meeting was a violation of the spirit and maybe even the letter of WECA’s established procedures. We have a Zoning Committee, to which zoning concerns should be referred for investigation and opinion gathering.

The committee organizes and publicizes meetings that allow residents to have their say—but that was not done in this case. We have heard that there was a claim of urgency: that WECA had been asked to state its position at a meeting with L&I two days after the Board meeting. But the food pantry had been in operation for some time. The urgency was false, and the WECA Board should have respected its established procedures and told L&I that we needed the time to do so.

b. Second, we feel that the heavy reliance at the meeting on responses to an e-mail sent to the membership was a serious mistake. It is important to remember that people who disagree with the status quo—in this case, with the existence of the food pantry—are much more likely to respond to an e-mail like this one than those satisfied with the existing situation. But more important, it is essential to understand that inclusion on WECA’s e-mail list, access to e-
mail generally, and the time and linguistic confidence to respond are not evenly distributed in our neighborhood. Relying on e-mail responses to make a decision as significant as this one disenfranchises a large and distinct group of West End residents. This is all the more troubling given the under-representation of just this group on the WECA Board.

c. Third, WECA’s bylaws require the Board to seek consensus in its decision-making. We feel that this principle was ignored in the making of the food pantry decision. It was clear that while a majority of Board members agreed with the decision, a significant minority was strongly in disagreement. Moreover, that minority was largely if not entirely made up of the Board’s south-of-Farmington members. It is true that there comes a point when consensus cannot be reached and a vote must be taken. But we do not think that point had been reached after the relatively brief discussion of the food pantry. When such an obvious divide exists, we would urge the Board to try especially hard to build consensus.

Over 75% of the West End’s residents are renters and many of them are low-income. The vast majority of these residents live south of Farmington Avenue. When WECA acts in a way that excludes or discounts these residents’ opinions and interests, we in the Southwest sector feel marginalized—and we can only imagine how our neighbors in the Southeast sector must feel, if they are even paying attention to WECA any more. We began our sector meeting Tuesday evening with introductions: name, street, and length of residence in the neighborhood. Most of us have been in the West End for more than a decade—and a few for nearly five decades. This is our neighborhood, whether we pay $75 to go to the Dine Around or bring SNAP coupons to the Farmer’s Market. We are proud West Enders—but we aren’t proud of our civic association today.

Respectfully submitted,

Elvia Strom & Alan Paluck, SouthWest Sector Representatives

On behalf of the SouthWest Sector of WECA

For background on this issue, see:

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