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Kevin Woster

Kevin Woster

It was a streamlined Rapid City Council meeting, beginning precisely at 7:30 p.m. and concluding at 7:32 sharp.

Nobody argued. Unanimous vote. Meeting adjourned.

If they could guarantee such efficiency every week, I might show up more often. Although based on the way Mayor Steve Allender began the meeting, I might have to bring some Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman.

“Kevin Woster will now read a poem,” Allender said.

Never one to argue with authority, uh, too much, I rose from my chair in the front row of the almost-empty city council chambers and stepped forward, noting expressions of shock but not awe on the faces of some council members.

Alas and alack, however, it was but a brief bit of theater, a farce of mayoral proportions. There was no poetry during the haiku-length meeting Monday night. But since Allender brought it up, I think starting meetings with a poem would be a great idea for any public body.

After all, 19th Century poet and playwright Percy Shelley — whose second wife, Mary, wrote "Frankenstein" — called poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” because they imagine creative paths forward for society.

Rapid City is looking for a creative path forward right now on the civic center. And words will help pave it, as they so often do.

Poet Elizabeth Alexander touched on that paving process in a poem she read at Barack Obama’s inaugural: “We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, words to consider, reconsider.”

We’ll be asked to consider and reconsider a flurry of words — some spiny, some smooth — as we encounter each other between now and June 5. With its abbreviated action Monday in response to a successful citizens petition drive, the council sent the civic-center-arena question — to build anew or to repair — on to the June 5 election ballot for city voters.

Words matter in most things. And they matter in this thing, which matters to our city. Allender has been busy with words, explaining and promoting the $130-million plan for a new arena, as well as the $25-million old-arena-repair alternative.

During the last nine months, he has made 44 presentations to about 1,700 people. Exit polling taken with 238 participants after six of the meetings showed strong support for building a new arena. We’ll see.

I’ve told you before in this column that I think this is a much-better plan than the one rejected by voters three years ago. I’ll vote for it on June 5th, thinking when I do of the 13 of our grandchildren who live here and deserve a city of expanding opportunity.

I’ve already confessed to you that I missed an important vote on the water-rate hike a while back. But I won’t miss this one. I hope you won’t, either. Because it’s not a small thing, this right to vote. It is the essence of who we are as a people, a city, a state and a nation.

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In the poem he read at John Kennedy’s inaugural, Robert Frost said:

“Something we were withholding made us weak

Until we found out that it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living…”

We make ourselves weak through absence and apathy. We silence our own voices by withholding our votes on essential issues.

So don’t be weak. Don’t silence yourself. Go to the calendar now, or pull out your cell phone, and mark June 5th. When it gets here, go vote. Or mark an early ballot.

Meanwhile, pay attention to the words. Poetic or not, they will matter to our future.

Kevin Woster writes a blog and offers radio commentary for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He can be reached by emailing kevinwoster@rushmore.com.

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