Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Local Politics

Yesterday, I was at an all-day conference about medical care in Vermont, focusing on preventative care and care and prevention of chronic diseases such as diabetes or asthma. I heard some interesting ideas and I'll talk more about that later, but for now, I'm going to rant a bit about local politics.

My two or so readers, if they're both still out there, know that I lost a local election early this month. I lost by a huge margin to a well-known local politician. The change in our town's Select Board has been very significant. The two new members are both Republicans and they replaced two Democrats. But, it's not their party affiliation that concerns me, but rather their behavior on our local board.

For 8 years, our town has been trying to upgrade its municipal offices. Almost 4 years ago, the voters approved a bond to fund that upgrade. There was some funny business about how a contract was awarded and things went to court. The town lost. Then, the town got sued over a crab apple tree that was supposed to be cut down as part of the expansion. There were a total of three lawsuits, a bunch of money was spent, and no progress was made.

While I was on the board, we considered buying an alternate property and moving the offices. The town was fairly split on that option, but I favored it because a contractor offered us a deal with a fixed maximum price that we would pay for the property and its upgrades. The old site had too many cost variables, and I didn't think that the money remaining from the bond was enough to guarantee we could build what we needed. The issue had to be decided by the voters rather than the board, but I came out in favor of the new site because it was the fiscally prudent choice, in my opinion.

In December, we held a special town vote and the move to the new location was defeated. Only 13% of the eligible voters participated. The board received a petition for a re-vote and we put it on the ballot for earlier this month. The vote was very, very close, but it won by 25 votes on a day with a very large voter turnout.

However, our new board members don't like the proposed location and they've decided that they won't honor the vote. The meetings since the election have been contentious, with one of the new board members insulting the public and town employees. I've been embarrassed by the behavior of our newly elected officials.

This past Monday, they held a meeting, but they deliberately "warned" the meeting (a warning is a notice to the public that a meeting is planned) in a way that the public might not notice that the meeting would occur. OK, it's my opinion that they did it this way, but the only media outlet to get notice of the meeting received it that day after they had published their weekly paper.

The plan for the meeting was to meet in public, go into a private executive session, and then adjourn. Vermont's Open Meeting laws severely restrict when meetings can go into executive session and the law states that these sessions should be used very judiciously. In my opinion, they did not have legal grounds for an executive session.

Anyway, a large number of people showed up to protest the meeting and the planned executive session. The meeting was very boisterous and the vote to go into executive session was 3-2, led by the two new members. One member of the public stated that he would not leave the room for the session to occur, so the board moved to an alternate location and met in secret with some local business owners for a long time. Most of the public waited out the session and protested again at the end of the meeting. One of the local business owners invited to the session was involved in the contract that was voided by the court a few years ago, and he has a vested financial interest in the building upgrade occurring at the current site rather than the alternate site.

While the board was in session, various options for public action were discussed. Some people want the new members thrown out of office, which it seems we cannot do according to Vermont law. Others are planning to sue if the town pursues any option other than what was voted on earlier this month.

When I was on the board, I worked very hard to remember that my opinions weren't very important. I was there to represent what the people wanted, not to rule over the people. Our new board members seem to think they are rulers rather than representatives of the people and it's very disappointing to me.

The upside of this has been the number of people getting actively involved in government. I think our next few elections will have lots of qualified and involved candidates, something that isn't always true.

After losing the election, I chose to remain on some town committees. It seems as if I'll still be pretty actively involved in local politics despite the election results.


ollie said...

oh, so you can run again on an "I told you so" platform?

Actually, our former mayor was defeated because he found open meetings and democracy to be well, a bit messy. Our current mayor, to be quite frank, isn't as smart as our former one, but is much more open and transparent.

janinsanfran said...

Still reading. Lots of times this is hard part: simply staying with the boring business of actually governing, getting anything done at all, especially getting anything done with the concurrence of a genuine, engaged majority.

A couple of local pols I know are snarling the entire Democratic Party of CA this weekend because of a very local primary fight. Pithy summary here. Neither will vote much differently than the other, but they are actively encouraging division and rancor. It is sad.