When he was still relevant, John Edwards spoke frequently about "Two Americas," a recycled but interesting refrain about how Washington had forgotten about the people it serves. Altough our local situation cannot be described as anything approaching Edwards' image of an entirely forgotten people, I wonder how much the notion of the forgotten majority may hold true in Falmouth today.
I got an e-mail this morning from a friend who is a very successful professional - a large portion of his job is to spend time before town boards and committees on behalf of his clients. He wondered to me if our local government was on the verge of becoming an "Oligarchy," that is, "a society or social system ruled by a few people. As societies or organizations become large it is thought that political power becomes concentrated in the hand of a few individuals," according to my well-informed friend. While that is somewhat the purpose of local government, to provide the authority necessary to run a community to a few people, I thought more about the meaning behind this assertion that somehow the "we" in our local government was becoming smaller.
Then it hit me. He is right. My friend went on to say that "The oligarchies are evolving based on the fact that agencies with special knowledge are adopting regulations based on the narrow outlook of the individuals employed by the agency. Most regulators look at the citizens as ignorant of the agencies special knowledge." He is correct, as over-burdensome building codes, ridiculously restrictive wetland regulations, and newly crafted state drainage standards are making development more expensive and almost impossible on Cape Cod. Those crafting these restrictions from their degree-laden offices are largely insulated from the toils of the "other" Falmouth scratching out a living under the burden of those in their comfy cubicles.
But this notion of the shrinking relevancy of the public is broader, and unfortunately much more troubling than the tangible creep of regulatory restrictions. From the coffeee shop prognosticators to the grocery store gurus to the maddening silence of a recent Finance Committee meeting, the desire to speak out and engage our leaders in a discussion on the basis and thinking behind their decisions has become an alarming rarity in our community. I attended a meeting of the Falmouth Finance Committee last week, and save for a refreshing and thoughtful challenge from member Gardner Lewis on discretionary school spending, the committee breezed through a discussion of the public school budget and the oft-debated High School renovation with robotic indifference.
Speaking out - being a "gadfly" or watchdog of local government seems to be a dying avocation. Abesent any challenge, our leaders are likely to think that every decision they make rests just fine with the public consciousness. Allowing our elected leaders to operate in that kind of opinion vacuum is not a good thing and surely leads to the insular government by the few feared by my friend.
For nearly thirty years, the scientific institutions in Woods Hole have been actively encouraging their employees to gain seats, elected and appointed, on local boards to participate in and influence the public process. They have been successful in shaping the course and nature of debate on everything from cranberries to construction projects - from beach nourishment to the flavor of improvements to Main Street. To their credit, today's Falmouth has their stamp emblazoned across its political and social landscape.
Recently, the Chamber of Commerce adopted a similar notion and its members have been popping up on boards and committees of consequence. The difference is, the Chamber appointees seem to have come into the government with a built-in hesitancy to speak out, lest they ruffle the feathers of a potential customer.
Our citizen-based government in Massachusetts, with its reliance on volunteers and citizen-pols to get things done, will sputter and spit through the process of governing without the necessary oil of active citizen input. I can remember a time not so long ago when the Finance Committee stood as a beacon of common sense, a necessary stop for a gut-check on the way to Town Meeting. This committee today is stacked with intelligent and capable citizens who have made their personal successes in the public and private sectors, but whose collective voice seems to have been reduced to a whimper under the guise of "working more closely with the Town." Does this desire to work together with those in the corner office include never offering a stern alternative? Does it include not speaking out so as to seem "nice" to Town Meeting and the press?
If we are to avoid slipping into a midwest mindset where we turn our will and our thinking over to the chosen elite in the halls of government, the voices of the many must re-emerge in Falmouth. Offering an opinioin over a double mocha frappucinno is simply not enough. Jumping on the bagel shop bandwagon must be accompanied by an equally passionate voice in Town Hall and Town Meeting.
Disagreeing is not impolite - it is immeasurably important to our future. Speaking out does not create an outcast - It carries on a 320 year tradition in our community of maintaining the government's accountability. As we sprint toward this spring's local celebration of democratic participation, Town Meeting, here's hoping the tradition continues.