Saturday, May 09, 2009

Democracy In Action, blah blah blah

I don't usually use this blog to express opinions on controversies, and I know I might be getting myself into hot water by this post. I know I am in the minority on this subject, and I welcome any who disagree with me or have other points of view to post them here. Keep it collegial, no personal attacks - I've tried hard to be respectful of other points of view here while still being true to my own.

Something under 10% of the voting public showed up at Town Hall last night to vote on the town and school budget. That's my off the cuff estimate - it looked like about 150 people, standing room only. I have never gone to one before, but I'll never miss one again: it's where all the action is.

I had received anxious emails from various acquaintances for the last few weeks, urging me to go vote no on the budget. Some contained statements such as this one, and I paraphrase: "if the school budget passes, taxes will go up so much that several people I know personally will have to leave town." As I understood it, the opposite was true: the school budget had no impact on taxes at all, and quite the contrary: if it didn't pass, several school teachers or staff, residents of Sharon, would likely lose their jobs.

Not that the school did a particularly good job of making their case, either. No letters home to parents, no email bulletins laying out the rationale for the budget, no letter to the editor explaining why it was appropriate to give staff 4% raises when town staff were only getting 2% - which seemed to be the crux of the issue for many. Or, to be fair, maybe all those things happened and I wasn't paying attention. But I don't think so. In the Webutuck district just over the New York state border, the superintendent writes the parents and community very regularly, explaining his thinking and planning process - it all seems open and transparent. But in Sharon, though I very much respect the administration and think they're doing an excellent job, the communication is not as broad. I guess I better start showing up at Board of Ed meetings!

So my vote was as knee-jerk as the antis: I vote pro-school as a matter of course. Others voted anti-school out of what appeared last night, based on comments I heard, to be anger, fear, resentment or (not to jump to conclusions about people's motivations) their own reasons which I don't (yet) know and understand.

Here's the weird part of last night's vote. The vote was originally supposed to be for the whole budget: town and school together. A motion was made to separate the vote: first town, then school. The town attorney explained, very clearly, that we could indeed decide to do that. However, if one half of the budget was voted down, both would go down. Vote yes to school, no to town: both town and school are defeated. In other words, splitting the vote would have absolutely no purpose. But the motion still passed, overwhelmingly. And as it turned out, while there was no practical purpose to splitting the vote in two, there was a huge symbolic one: the town budget passed by roughly 70/30, and the school budget went down by almost the same margin. So a protest was clearly registered - people were unhappy with the school.

While waiting for the vote to be tallied, we got to consider and vote on such items as cemetery maintenance, a new dog pound, and a waste oil recycling thingy at the town garage. Passions ran high on all the issues, though the reasons for those passions weren't always clear. One fellow (known to all in the room) argued that we don't need a dog pound, a 12-gauge shotgun will do just as well, and wondered why a town should bother maintaining its cemeteries. Another had a huge issue with the way the cemetery funds were being handled, though exactly what his issue was became no clearer after quite a few minutes of speaking.

I appreciated some aspects of the way it was all run. The moderator kept his sense of humor. The attorney was calm and clear. The first selectman explained his budget items well. And everyone got to say their piece, but unlike in informal arguments, they only got to say it once and then had to sit down and be quiet.

There's another interesting aspect to all of this, and it gets back to the "Democracy in Action" theme. My instinct is to respect the hard work of the board of finance, selectmen, and board of ed and support the research, hard work and decisionmaking process that went on behind the scenes. But I know that kind of blind trust can lead down the road to ruin - I should dig deeper and question authority. Even if some of the people objecting were coming from perspectives with which I disagree, or had their facts wrong, or argued ridiculous positions like 'shoot all the stray dogs' - it's still critical that everyone shows up, asks all the questions, makes all their arguments, and demands facts and accountability.

We'll have another chance to vote on the budget in due course, and meanwhile we are all still neighbors - we all still say a friendly hi to each other in the grocery store post office.

So here's what I'm wondering. Should I run for first selectman?


Blogger Rick said...

Why not? You have just as much right as anyone else.... No Democrat has announced yet. One Republican thus far. Inspiration is half the battle. If you think you can do it, or would like a shot at it, i say go for it.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

I absolutely love your description of the issues, the split vote (which had NO effect except to kill both when a no vote was the outcome) and the dear gentleman who thought shotguns should rule and the heck with those bothersome tombstones (where is his family buried??). YES, run for office. Although I live in a city of 300,000, county of 1 million and metro area of over 3 million, those who run because they feel it in their heart and bones are the ones who have the capacity to lead and make the right decisions. Run, RUN! (Just check the gun laws and mind your family's gave site.)

9:04 PM  
Blogger Terry Cowgill said...

Sure, go for it. If you have a clear vision for where you'd like to take the town, can articulate it and can demonstrate you have relevant experience, then I think you'd have a decent chance.

I might run for P&Z here in Salisbury myself. It's shaping up to be an interesting fall, eh?.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Ted Roth said...

I like your brand of civics. Being informed and voting are the most basic patriotic duties. I taught for 30 years in WAshington, CT, and attended many of those nasty town meetings. Because we are a region, the school vote is always a separate ballot and has no bearing on the town budget except in regard to taxes. Washington's (Region 12's) budget went down this year too, and there was very little informing before the vote. Very sad. Budget increase had been kept to a minimum, but when the economy gets this way, the cut taxes at any cost crowd picks up membership. Keep up the good fight.

6:41 PM  
Anonymous Bob H said...

Hi Jenny,

If you don't run for office, being part of a group to perhaps assist in mediation of issues before the next vote certainly seems like a place you would both do well and be appreciated.

Your summary lends itself to discussion and understanding. And, as Ted posted, "I like your brand of civics. Being informed and voting are the most basic patriotic duties."

7:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In other words, splitting the vote would have absolutely no purpose."

If a yes on both is required for the increases to pass, splitting the vote actually makes for a greater chance that the vote will fail. Consider a coin flip where heads is pass and tails is not pass. You would have to flip both coins and have them both land on heads to have the vote pass. Thus the chance of them both passing would be 0.50 x 0.50 = 0.25. Whereas if it was single vote and a single coin flip, the chance would be 0.50. This may seem abstract, but consider the vote: who is to say that people may not have voted yes to get the town budget through, even though they may have disagreed with the school budget?

12:02 PM  

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