Waning Faith in Town Hall Square

"This town needs an enema!"   - Jack Nicholson as the Joker, Batman, 1989

"Town Hall needs an enema!"  - Marc Finneran, Falmouth resident, 2007

It seems to me that the confidence level, the nebulous comfort level that people have with their local government ebbs and flows.  This depends largely on the current issues and events, and, more importantly, how these issues and events are managed and reacted to by those in charge.  In Falmouth now, I sense the local confidence and comfort at a near nadir, with a five-member Board of Selectmen heading in five different directions, pursuing five separate agendas and demonstrating great difficulty in unifying and showing a common voice on any issue of significance. 

For example, the warrant for the Spring Annual Town meeting just closed on Friday, and this April's version of the local democracy-fest should prove to be one of the most lively and contentious in recent memory.  The fact that no less than seven articles have been submitted by petition signals a lack of confidence in the leadership coming from 59 Town Hall Square.  Don't get me wrong, I support the petition article as a direct route for the citizens to have their issues debated by the town's legislative body.  When so many choose to do so, though, it triggers an alarm that something must be unsettling about the way people feel about their local leaders if they insist on bypassing them and heading straight to Town Meeting.

In the coming weeks, as the warrant takes shape, we will be debating everything from zoning changes, to beach access, to the powers of the Conservation Commission, to of course, affordable housing in Woods Hole, all via petition articles submitted by citizens.  These debates, in the coffee shops, grocery aisles, and media outlets of our town, will be played out against the backdrop of the two haymakers in this bout, the High School renovation and looming budget crisis.  These two alone are enough to shake one's confidence in our overwhelmed local leaders, then comes the potpourri of ancillary issues to tip the scales toward chaos.

So, back to the root of this waning faith in Town Hall Square.  To be sure, the main source, the primary reason for this crumbling confidence is a lack of unity and leadership.  We have not seen in some time a Board that can or, I suppose, will unify on an issue and demonstrate the collective strength and political will that can inspire confidence in the citzenry.  In the past, we've seen the Selectmen unify on issues like the MMR pollution, the Steamship Authority, even dog hearings, for Pete's sake.  Now, you can watch them quibble on Monday nights on the simplest of issues.  They even took a wonderful feel-good issue like raising money to extend the hours of the veterans' assistant and managed to create a controversy.

It's not about liking your colleagues.  It's not about being liked.  The best Board on which I ever served had five people with philosophies, backgrounds, and socio-economic situations as varied as Elton John's sunglass collection, but we arrived at the table every Monday night determined to to the peoples' business with decorum and respect.  I just don't see that commitment to unity right now - and it's not just because I observe rather than participate these days.  Everywhere I go, I am approached by people asking me what is wrong with the town, as if the seat of our local government has been infected with some disease of malaise and discontent. 

In the past several years, we have added many new positions to the town's roster.  These have been positions in the police department, fire department, and library, among others, and all have passed the scrutiny of the Finance Committee and Town Meeting.  Now, though, we are told that other positions may be cut as a result of our inability to fund them.  Does anyone else sense the disconnect there?

One petitioner has submitted an article to ask Town Meeting to keep the beaches open at all times.  Currently, a beach worker in the summer evenings makes the rounds and locks the gates at each beach each night.  This seems like a simple enough routine policy request that it could and should be solved at the level of the Beach Committee or the Selectmen.  The Selectmen decided the issue, then changed their minds, then recently changed their minds again. What was a simple issue that should have been decided definitively once, has now degraded into a problematic debate because of the inability of our elected leaders to fulfill one of their most basic responsibilities: to lead. When one village or consituency starts chirping louder than the others, you cannot allow them to drive the agenda, lest the cacaphony of chirping from all groups becomes deafeaning, and in this case, paralyzing.

The solution for this self-imposed paralysis is difficult but not impossible.  The Board must show that they can collectively unite on an issue, craft a common voice, then stick to that voice, despite criticism and pressure from interest groups, from the flimsy to the formidable. They have to slowly rebuild the confidence that has been chipped away over the last couple of years by showing the coffee shop prognosticators that they can look us in our collective eyes and tell us what is right.  We don't need to hear, "well, on one hand...," hands are for jugglers. 

In the coming weeks, as the body politic of Falmouth  morphs into shape for Town Meeting, five individuals  have the power to paint the canvas that will be the picture of our community.  They can work together as a collective artist and produce the productive landscape of which they are capable, or they can be five finger painters running around getting their thoughts on the canvas, finishing up with an abstract and muddled mess.  The shape of our town and the prognosis of the paralysis depends on the artisitic method they choose.


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