Thoughts on small town democracy…

The autocrats amongst us…

I was writing a thank-you note to one of the dozens of people who supported my candidacy and I used the phrase, “the autocrats amongst us.”

‘Especially at this difficult moment,’ I wrote spontaneously, ‘your commitment to local government helps counter the damage done by the autocrats among us.’

            I meant simply to thank someone for their support, but that phrase, that idea, pushed through the sidewalk of my consciousness like a weed and I suddenly realized that I had come to believe that the systemic failure of our vaunted if quaint Town Meeting form of government was, in some small way, associated with the world-wide rise in authoritarianism.

            Yeah, I know, big leap.

And yes I know, the closure of town hall, the delays of our Town Meeting, and the reliance on the unreliable ‘meeting space’ provided by Zoom has a great deal to do with Covid-19: it is at least the leading excuse.

But democracy is, by its nature, in constant peril.

            Until this year I thought it more resilient.

Until this year I thought that its practitioners would put up a bigger fight when it was challenged, when its institutions were put on stand- by.

            But I don’t see that happening.

            There are so many truths and ideals and beliefs that we claim to hold dear, that when they are challenged or, their practice becomes inconvenient, we readily jettison.

            But government too?

            Our particular form of participatory government is, to continue the biological metaphor, like a kitchen garden: small, tucked into the corner of the yard and inefficient in the extreme.

Such a garden requires nearly as much effort to plant, tend, water and, yes, weed, as does a larger garden.

Such a garden produces, well, little enough on its own: Sharls’ has a few radishes, three pumpkins, a few dozen tomatoes, zucchini.

It’s clear though that , despite its size, it can provide an inordinate amount of personal satisfaction when shared with others.

That is democracy, literally in a nutshell: a private garden that we tend ourselves, then take the fruit of our labor to the public market.

There the fruits of our labor are handled, squeezed and, ultimately, judged by our fellow gardeners.

But the market has been shut down.

The stalls are closed.

The radishes are rotting.

The tomatoes are turning black.

The pumpkins are running amok.

And the autocrats?

Well, they never liked Town Meeting in the first place.

BK, BB, AB, BBBK

Whatever your previous feelings about Birgitta Kuehn (BK), you could not help but have been impressed with her speech to the Board of Select Person’s last Tuesday night.

            It was an eloquent recitation of BK’s accomplishments while the Chair of the Town’s Board of Health, and a strong argument for her re-appointment to a second three-year term.

            Even if you knew that BK had been chastised by the Board in the past for her treatment of constituents, that she and the Town Manager had not seen eye to eye but, instead, eye for an eye, you would have been hard-put not to give her high marks.

             BB (Before Birgitta) the Board of Health had been a rather amateurish affair, content to work around the edges of public health issues in Plymouth .

            AB (After Birgitta) the Board became a professional organization, the public face of what aspired to be a true “Public Health Department,” contributing to the effort to fight opioids, attempting to literally dig into the problem of ponds polluted by faulty or non-existent septic systems, and with the expertise (when led by the town’s first true Director of Public Health, Nate Horwitz-Willis) to think epidemiologically, not simply react to problems as they arose.

            AB the Board of Health spearheaded the effort to obtain an MVP grant for the town – likely the first of many, created their first strategic plan with (so un-Plymouth like) actual constituent participation, and accomplished much more.

            There are literally hundreds of appointed members of the various boards and committees that comprise our Town Meeting form of government, many of them serving at the pleasure of the Select Board, and who can be removed for cause or not reappointed when their terms are up.

            It is rare though for the Select Board to replace an incumbent who actively seeks reappointment.

            This past Tuesday night the Select Board appointed two dozen or so residents to various boards and committees.

For the Health Board there were five candidates for three positions.

            BK was the only incumbent seeking reappointment.

            She ascended to the high platform, walked to the edge and peered over, took her position, extended her arms over the end, bent her knees then sprang into the air.

            There was an audible gasp  when she began with a reverse gainer – a somersault that spins the divers head backwards toward the board.

            She went into a curl, spun 2 ½ times around, unfurled like a jackknife and, if her form was all that mattered should have received a perfect score from all five judges (Select Board members_.

            But there was no water in the pool.

            BBBK. (Bye Bye Birgitta Kuehn).

            Or is it, ‘until we meet again?’

‘jawjaw’

            I used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to ask the town for all documents related to the Select Board’s Executive Session regarding 204 Long Pond Road, a small building on conservation property off Long Pond Road that I have a personal interest in.

            The reason cited for the closed session was to discuss the potential purchase, exchange, or lease of the property.

            I wondered who was interested, and why. I guess I was mostly bothered by the apparent need to keep that information from the public.

            So using the FOIA I asked, specifically, for all communications to the Board, about the property, over the last few weeks.

            I didn’t expect that there would be much but, just in case, I said that if it proved to be a voluminous number of documents that I be apprised of the cost before they proceeded.

            The law gives the town 10 days to find those documents: it didn’t take that long.

            There were none, I was told.

            Zero, zilch, nada, nuttin!

            So the Board was never given any documents about 204 Long Pond Road, but they decided they needed to go into Executive Session to talk about it “to consider the purchase, exchange, lease or value of real property if the chair declares that an open meeting may have a detrimental effect on the negotiating position of the public body.

            I was confused.

            If there were no offers, or exchanges proposed – and there seemed to be no record the Select Board had been informed of such an offer – then how could they say they needed to go into executive session to protect their negotiating position?

            And yet, according to the town’s archivist, there were no documents at all.

            “I guess I was not sufficiently precise in my language,” I told the archivist.

            Instead I asked for all communications, created or received by, Town Hall, that referenced 204 Long Pond Road, within that same time frame.

            I thought it likely I would have to wait the full ten days this time.

            I’m not alleging wrong-doing.

I am concerned that the board is in the habit of hushing things up before they need to be.

            It may be that they are planning on demolishing the building. It may be that there is an offer to buy or lease the building. A local business may have expressed an interest.

            But why not make that public?

            I think that everyone in government needs to err on the site of transparency.

            I want to know what is going on, before decisions are made or opinions formed.

            Shortly after making my modified FOIA request I was told there were three documents and a number of emails that fit.

            The documents included, not surprisingly, the agenda of the meeting when the executive session took place, plus a list of leased, town-owned properties, and a vague reference to the theoretical effect that taxing non-profits would have on the overall tax rate.

            Useless to me.

            There were also 3,000 emails that, at a minute apiece to review and redact, at $25 per hour would the archivist informed me, would cost me over $1,000 to see.

            I did a double jaw drop: a jawjaw.

Could there really have been more than 3,000 emails about 204 Long Pond Road in less than a month?

From zero to 3,000 in one day?

In any case I couldn’t afford to find out so I narrowed my search to the four days leading to the Executive Session.

Would that turn up the information I wanted? Would that cost me $100 or more to see?

            There were just four emails on those four days.

            To review and redact would take just four minutes.

            A savings of $998!

            “I’ll send them right over,” the archivist said.

            Four hours later they arrived, or rather, a summary, which is to say that someone at Town Hall determined that every word in those emails, if revealed to me, would compromise their ability to negotiate the sale or lease of that property (the only reason they could go into executive session to discuss it).

            All I could know is who sent the emails and who received them: nothing more.

            You know what I am afraid of? Not that these three emails, if seen in their entirety, would reveal something disturbing.

            I am afraid that this is normal.

            When the smoke clears

            We walked up to the top of Burial Hill on the night of the 4th and sat on a bench overlooking the waterfront.

            It’s probably, depending on the conditions, the best view in town: Water Street, the jetty, Long Beach, Bug Light, Clarks Island, Gurnet and Saquish all unfurled before you, a tapestry of town and water and sand and spire.

            Not on this night though.

            It had been unusually foggy for several days leading up to the 4th but tonight the town was under a blanket of smoke.

            Fireworks.

            Small skirmishes everywhere.

            Small arms fire at the top of Russell Street.

            Rockets rising from somewhere along Town Brook.

            Whistlers spiraling up and over Coles Hill.

            A motorcyclist rumbling up and down the connector streets, pausing to toss M80’s.

            And a few hundred feel up through the smoke, easily mistaken for a bright star with its earthward facing light, the unmistakable whirring of a drone keeping watch on Town Hall.

            Eventually, unable to see much of anything, we came down the hill and on to South Russell, then up Court in front the 1820 Courthouse.

            Two men stood on the sidewalk there, one with a large brown dog that obediently sat as we passed by.

            He wished us a ‘happy 4th.’

            When we were 25 yards past him, he launched a screaming rocket up and over Court Street.

            I guess it wasn’t that bad. It all seemed to fade away before midnight.

            But when the smoke clears, what will remain?

            Court and Main with their candy-cane barriers.

            An obstacle course of restaurant tables on the sidewalks.

            An endless parade of overly loud motorcycles.

            Water Street sounding more like Daytona Beach.

            Did I mention the biker with his “Black Bikes Matter,” tee shirt on the corner?

            He’s there all the time, in that same shirt.

            When the smoke clears are we going to be able to recognize this town?

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