Acrimony and agitation are as much a part of the American governing experience as the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance. They’re not the same iconic entities. But they are individual elements that merit attention.
In Paris, be assured, you’ll find them both, often after the reciting of the Pledge to that very same flag.
It has been a long-held belief that the Town of Paris, when it comes to its Selectboard meetings and the public comments that are made at them, borders on sport. Shots are taken, hits are frequent and few seem to bother with injuries, in this case, bruised egos and hurt feelings.
During its Sept. 23 board meeting, selectmen decided they had enough. One, Gerald Kilgore, challenged anyone in the audience who had never erred to step forward. Nobody moved. Selectman Samuel Elliot objected to the”tone” of the comments, saying the board welcomes “any polite, thoughtful comments.” Added Elliot, “At least I have (had enough).” Selectman Robert Wessels said he “100 percent wholeheartedly disagree” with the “tone and presentation.”
In what could be considered its own turning point, the board stood tall and said there was no place for the frequent personal, often “snide” and “nasty” comments.
By all accounts, they are correct.
Under ordinary circumstances, media tend to sympathize with activists. They make life interesting. They often play the role of underdog. Moreover, the inherent sense of conflict they offer and the passions they harbor provide great theater, and even better quotes.
But Selectboard meetings are not stages for drama. They are the time and the place where the public’s business is introduced, discussed and ultimately voted upon. In small towns, they are microcosms of the citizens themselves, often their neighbors, sometimes their friends and always their fellow citizens.
That is a part of the democratic process.
One citizen said as much at the Sept. 23 meeting. Yes, that citizen noted, democracy can be messy. It’s not always pretty. It does warrant contentiousness and conflict.
But does it need to warrant confrontation for confrontation sake?
At most selectboard meetings, the same citizens show up week after week, argument and arsenal in tow. The argument is their position on a given subject; the arsenal is the acerbic verbiage often used to express it.
No one is questioning anyone’s rights to attend the meetings and make a case. That’s why there is a public comment portion to all the meetings, and it is done in a fair and open way. And no one suggests every action the selectboard takes be given an automatic pass.
Quite the contrary. Citizens should ask the tough questions. Citizens should challenge their elected representatives to be responsive to their concerns. And citizens must always be in a position to exercise their voices at the place it matters most – the ballot box.
But Selectboard meetings are not the forums to wage political battles, or to engage in meaningless take downs of town employees and individual selectboard members.
For example, making note of an individual town employee who one may think is an unnecessary drain on the taxpayers and who has specific performance issues, or issuing quasi-performance evaluations in public, serves no practical purpose. It’s the reason personnel matters are handled in executive session.
Maybe a call to the Town Manager would be the best protocol, with the desired result being a more efficient town employee and a more satisfied taxpayer. To its credit, this board appears poised not to micromanage Town Manager Amy Bernard, who, amazingly, takes the brunt of the verbal arrows tossed her way with diplomatic ease, albeit, a tad of inner angst. No one can blame her if she does.
To his credit, Selectboard Chairman Robert Kirchherr conducts meetings with a firm but fair hand. He allows speakers their allotted time, even when he and the board are the targets of those same verbal arrows and torpedoes. He usually thanks the individual making the comment before moving on.
American politics is laced with discord and discontent. In the nation’s capital, it’s the bane of life. In Augusta, Mainers are accustomed to such behavior. In a small town, it can become pervasive and unhealthy if left unchecked.
It’s been said that the inner workings of government often resemble the making of sausage. A colorful and tempting metaphor, to be sure. But even metaphors don’t have to leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth. That could be one reason why many citizens in Paris shun the chance to serve. Who needs the headache?
And so, as the Town of Paris grapples with the challenges of rebuilding a police department, dealing with roads in need of repair, keeping the street lights on, addressing the problems of speeding and public safety, manicuring the parks and making sure taxpayers are getting the most for their tax dollars, it would be a refreshing change in course if a more congenial atmosphere prevailed.
Short of limiting the alotted time for public comments, the board should consider enacting a policy where grievances – not public comments but complaints – are handled separately from the town meeting. It would save a lot of time, and would be more efficient. Moreover, individuals who serve on town committees should be the ones hearing citizen grievances, not the ones staging them as if they are an independent lobbying force. It comes across as double jeopardy.
To be sure, if those who have become surrogate selectboard members opted instead to use their talents in a more positive, productive and visionary fashion, instead of using their institutional insight to wage public spats at the town meetings and public hearings, the town, not the individuals, would be the winner.
The matter doesn’t have to come up for a vote. But it needs to unanimously pursued.
Advertiser Democrat Editorial Board