Bellevue resident group forms to promote change
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Bellevue council meetings are becoming more popular with residents these days, and one reason may be a new public awareness group called Liberty in Bellevue.
Co-creator of the group is lifelong Bellevue resident Tom Fodi, 29, minister for Emmanuel Christian Church in Brighton Heights.
He and Danina DiBattista, owner of Bite Bistro, say their community has been in decline for as long as they can remember. They graduated from Northgate High School in 2001.
"Tom and I have an idea of what the potential of Bellevue is," said Ms. DiBattista as she prepared to argue a section of the borough's ban on alcohol during council's June meeting.
According to Mr. Fodi, this is a keystone issue for the group.
"The seed for this [group] started with Bellevue being a dry town. I got involved when I found that there was some traction to the idea for businesses to purchase liquor licenses," he said. "I still believe that the current statute of restricting what can be sold is one of the things choking out progress to our business district."
Mr. Fodi and supporters were able to get a referendum going last year, but it lost by 80 votes.
"[The group] fell apart at that point," he said, adding, "businesses and residents started making plans to leave."
Ms. DiBattista said that this was a typical response.
"Every year, a group of people try to make a difference, but council members who want to keep the status quo keep winning, because this is their job, and they break people down," she said.
Mr. Fodi served in Iraq with the Air Force Reserves after the vote, returning in December 2011. Ms. DiBattista was still rallying people to prepare another alcohol referendum in three years. "Danina was passionate about trying to save the town and maintain its livelihood," he said.
A new ordinance that required outdoor grills to be at least 5 feet from homes and other buildings caught Mr. Fodi's attention when he began attending council meetings.
"I understood there were a handful of complaints from citizens, and within months [council] wrote a new ordinance further restricting the rights of private citizens," he said. "It took years of work to get anyone to listen to the alcohol referendum."
After hearing the majority of residents speak against more restrictive aspects of the burning ordinance at a special meeting in May, Mr. Fodi started a blog -- Liberty in Bellevue -- wrote a mission statement about providing solutions for the community and added input on Facebook.
"Within minutes I had four hits and then dozens and then emails from people wanting to be involved. Within two weeks I had an organizational meeting with about 20 people," he said.
"This town is desperate for people to stand up and say there is a better way of running our borough."
Ms. DiBattista noted that in the past month, they have seen positive results, posting their meeting agendas online after the group requested it. "We're not focusing on the negative," she said. "We're an action group, so we see problems plus viable, accomplishable solutions."
Ms. DiBattista also got council to consider establishing an ordinance allowing patrons of restaurants with outside seating to bring their own alcohol to what is currently a restricted area.
"For me personally, the problem seems to be most concerned with members of council who only want to live in the Bellevue of the past and have no interest in progress or change or something different for their community," said Mr. Fodi. "The mayor and council members got passionately involved in that issue because Bellevue always has been and always will be a dry town. We have a problem with that."
Council members Mark Helbling and Kathy Coder have become members of the group. Council member Jane Braunlich is a regular target of their criticisms, but she respects their right to exist. "Everyone's entitled to their own opinions," she said, "but they're not entitled to their own facts."
A new alcohol referendum can be presented in three years, said Mr. Fodi. "In that time, we want to educate the public about what [allowing alcohol in Bellevue's business district] really means, and there's no reason to be afraid of it."
Council member James Viscusi noted that allowing BYOB -- bring your own bottle -- consumption outside of restaurants could lead to the repeal of Bellevue's long-standing law against alcohol being served by borough establishments.
The group plans to run its own candidates in the next municipal election and to promote a sense of community by urging volunteers to help spruce up the town. "We want to be a part of the answer," Mr. Fodi said.
First Published July 6, 2012 12:00 am