Candidates’ Night

There are only two contested races on West Tisbury’s town election ballot, and so far the buzz is not exactly overwhelming, but the turnout for Candidates’ Night on Wednesday was respectable enough.

The event was organized and moderated by the League of Women Voters. The time-keeper sat in the front row with two signs, one announcing a one-minute warning and the other (red, of course) saying STOP. Candidates in contested races were allotted five minutes each, those in uncontested race got three, and no limit was imposed either on questions from the audience or the responses to them.

Candidates spoke in the order their offices are listed on the ballot. Those running unopposed gave a capsule description of what their jobs were about, which made the evening a short version of the “What Makes West Tisbury Tick?” forum that was held in the same room in early February.

Dan Waters, unopposed candidate for moderator, led off. As the one who runs town meetings, the moderator is one of the most visible town officials.

Dan had never expected to hold the office: his predecessor, Pat Gregory, first elected in 1991, seemed tailor-made for the job. Then in May 2014, just a month after town meeting, the whole town was shocked by news of Pat’s murder while he was hiking in California.

So Dan — artist, poet, printer, muscian — stepped up to the plate and was elected to the position that fall. Part of his self-education for the job involved watching videos of 11 town meetings that Pat conducted. His main task is, he noted, “to make sure that everyone feels free to get up and speak,” especially newcomers to town, new voters, and anyone daunted by the prospect of speaking before 300+ of their townsfolk.

One of the two contested races this year is for selectman. In West Tisbury, as in many New England towns, town meeting is, in effect, the legislature and the board of selectmen is, more or less, the executive. In a year there’s always one annual town meeting and maybe one or two specials. The three-member board of selectmen meets weekly. It’s not hard to figure out that much of the day-to-day business of running the town falls to the selectmen. Selectmen are elected for a three-year term, and one seat comes open each year. Turnover is not great, and contested elections are not all that common. This year incumbent Richard Knabel is being challenged by Kent Healy, a civil engineer who’s served the town in various capacities.

At the table, candidates for selectman Richard Knabel (left) and Kent Healy.

In the interest of full, or semi-full disclosure, I have to say that I’m not remotely neutral in this one. I like Kent Healy, but I’m also on Richard’s small but valiant campaign committee. So I’m not going to go into the blow-by-blow of who said what — just read whatever campaign literature comes your way.

Katherine Triantafillou, running for re-election to the finance committee, spoke about what the fincom does: basically they review every article that appears on the town meeting warrant, and if it involves spending money (as many warrant articles do), they examine its implications for the rest of the town budget and the tax rate. Gary Montrowl, also running for re-election, wasn’t able to be present. Since there are two seats open, they’ll both be re-elected.

There followed unopposed candidates for the board of assessors (Maria McFarland), tax collector (Brent Taylor, represented by a written statement), and town clerk (Tara Whiting).

The other contested race on the ballot is for library trustee, where three candidates are vying for two slots. I’d heard some interesting stories about why the third candidate was running, but that individual neither appeared nor sent a statement so I’m no wiser than I was at the beginning. I believe I’ll vote for the other two. This race did elicit the (to me) most interesting factoid of the evening: 85% of West Tisbury’s residents have library cards. Yay us!

Town clerk Tara Whiting oversees all aspects of elections and issues dog licenses, among several other duties. She’s running unopposed this year.

Next came the Parks and Recreation Committee and the Planning Board, and the town’s representative to the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission. Binnie Ravitch is running for the latter. Vote for her.

John Powers, the town’s retired former health agent, hadn’t known exactly what the constable’s duties were, but he did know that of the town’s two constables, one had retired and the other moved to another town. Turns out the constable mainly serves at the direction of the town clerk, helping oversee elections. It’s the constable who sits by the imposing ballot box at the polls and makes sure that it’s only one ballot per voter. So John decided to run, and since he’s unopposed it looks like he’ll be elected.

No one was there to make a presentation about either of the two ballot questions — one resolves to ban moped rentals in town and the other is a non-binding referendum about whether to establish a housing bank to support affordable housing. So we adjourned a little early and went into the night at the still-respectable hour of 8:20.

NB: You find find out almost anything you want to know about West Tisbury town government, including the Annual Town Meeting warrant, at the town website. To find out other stuff, you could hang out on Alley’s porch, at the library, or in the post office parking lot and listen to people talk.

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Calendars Rule

I used to pride myself on being able to keep all my engagements and deadlines in my head. My memory isn’t unusually capacious — it’s just that my engagements were few, and because most of my editing jobs are book-length or close to it, it’s unusual for me to have more than a couple of deadlines in a two- or three-week period.

“Dogs of Martha’s Vineyard” is the title of my chair-side calendar, and the resident malamute is the March poster boy. Google Calendar can”t beat that.

The 2016 election changed all that. Now, if I don’t write all my commitments down somewhere, I either blow some of them off or double-book myself. My chair-side calendar does not compare with the impressive day-at-a-glance books that some of my new colleagues carry, but I’ve become dependent enough on it that when it disappears under a stack of papers and folders and books I get anxious.

For a backup I’ve got Google Calendar. Google obediently emails me a reminder a few hours before every event I’m supposed to be at. My chair-side calendar doesn’t do that.

However, my Travvy is the March poster boy in my Dogs of Martha’s Vineyard calendar. Google doesn’t have that.

So Sunday morning it dawned on me for real that I had four — count ’em, four — commitments on Sunday, starting at 1 p.m. and continuing till 9. OMG, OMG. Before the election, four commitments in a week was my idea of a full schedule. If I’m supposed to be out three nights in a row, I can generally be counted on to fink out on one of the three.

But on Sunday I made it to all four, and pretty much on time too.

International Women’s Day at Five Corners

At 1 p.m. it was the weekly meeting of We Stand Together / Estamos Todos Juntos at the charter school. First everyone meets together in the main hall, then we break into smaller committees: civic engagement, environment, and so on. I’ve been meeting with the women’s committee, which organized the “Women Stand Together” rally at Five Corners on International Women’s Day. My hopes for this group have been dwindling: it’s more interested in playing to the big-name summer people and getting mainstream PR than in trying to organize on the year-round Vineyard. As you can probably guess from reading this blog, this is not a high priority with me.

I left the committee meeting a little early in order to make it to Vineyard Haven for my 2:30 rehearsal at Grace Episcopal Church. A pickup chorus is rehearsing Part III of Handel’s Messiah for a performance at Grace toward the end of April. Last week’s rehearsal, the first, was a total wash for me: I was the only alto present, and the only chorus in Part III that I halfway know is the “Amen,” which I last sang 15+ years ago. I spent more time lost than not, but during the week I’d practiced a lot with my score and Cyberbass, an amazing website that features a gazillion vocal works broken down into their component parts so you can practice your part with the other parts in the background.

This week there were two other altos, and it was the sopranos who were not only short-staffed but missing their strongest singers. My practice had paid off — this week I actually knew what I was doing — but now I realized that I’d been cueing off the sopranos for several alto entrances, and when the sopranos were inaudible, I didn’t come in. “Worthy is the Lamb” and the “Amen” are both very fugue-y, which means that if you lose your place it can be really hard to get back in. So this week I’m paying more attention to what the tenors are doing, and to counting time independent of the other parts.

I’d already figured that the only time Travvy and I could get in an afternoon walk was between rehearsal and Richard Knabel’s party (reception?) to kick off his campaign for re-election as West Tisbury selectman. It started at 5 and I didn’t get there till about 5:20, but this isn’t the sort of gathering where you have to show up on the dot. Showing up on the dot is not a Vineyard specialty. “Vineyard time” can mean as much as an hour late. This becomes less amusing the more meetings, rehearsals, and other events you’re supposed to go to.

The food at Richard’s events is always excellent, so I figured I could safely forgo supper. I was right. The company was congenial, and I got to talk with people I already knew pretty well, people I had only a nodding acquaintance with, and people who knew me from Facebook but whom I’d never met face to face. West Tisbury candidates’ night is tomorrow, March 22, at the library, so I’ll blog more about the upcoming election after that. Town meeting is on Tuesday, April 11, and the election’s two days later, but you knew that already, right?

My last Sunday engagement was the 7 p.m. meeting of the Sunday Writers, which, as you can guess, meets on Sunday. This is the most important meeting of my week and the one I won’t blow off without very compelling cause (like a musician friend performing in Woods Hole, that sort of thing). I’d wisely tucked my manuscript pages into my satchel, guessing that I wouldn’t make it home between Richard’s reception and my writers’ group meeting. I don’t wear a watch and I didn’t see a clock, but my internal time-keeper gave me a nudge, whereupon I realized that two of the other Sunday Writers at the party had already left, and the third wasn’t going.

When I got to my car, the dashboard clock said 6:55. The internal time-keeper had nailed it again: it takes five minutes to drive from Richard’s to Cynthia’s, and I got there on time.

Trav spent most of Sunday out on the deck waiting for me to come home, which I did several times.

 

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Women Stand Together

Poster by Chris Pettit

Across the country and around the world yesterday, women and our allies rallied to celebrate International Women’s Day.

In some places, women refrained from work and/or shopping in order to demonstrate women’s significance to the community and the economy. On the Vineyard we decided to make ourselves visible in another way: by rallying at Five Corners in the late afternoon, 4 to 5:30 p.m. Five Corners is probably the single most visible place on the island.

Morning rain gave way to bright if brisk afternoon sunshine. An estimated 70 turned out. As at the demonstrations and marches on January 21, day 1 of the Trump administration, the signs were plentiful, creative, and inspirational.

The rally was organized by the Women’s Committee of We Stand Together / Estamos Todos Juntos, a multi-faceted grassroots action group born out of the shock and concern that greeted last November’s election results. Its first public action was the successful rally at Waban Park (Dennis Alley Park) on November 19. Since then it was gone on to do really stellar work promoting safety in the schools and around the island for those threatened by the new administration’s anti-immigrant policies. It also co-sponsored, with the M.V. Hebrew Center, the hugely successful “legislative forum” with State Rep. Dylan Fernandes and State Sen. Julian Cyr on February 5.

To find out more and to get involved, WST/ETJ meets at 1 p.m. every Sunday at the M.V. Public Charter School. It also has a page on (where else?) Facebook.

“Be Bold for Change” was a theme of the day: note the sign on the right-hand side of the lower photo. The crowd was spirited and convivial, as Vineyard gatherings tend to be. We greeted friends, introduced ourselves to people we didn’t know (some of whom we knew on Facebook but hadn’t met in person), and went around reading each other’s signs.

I picked up a few tips about effective demo signage.

  • If the sign has to be read from a distance, a few big words are better than a lot of small ones.
  • When the wind is blowing, the bigger the sign the harder it is to hold. (The wind is often blowing on Martha’s Vineyard, especially at Five Corners.)
  • Foamboard is your friend.

Being a novice sign-maker with minimal graphic skills, I balked at the price of foamboard when I stopped by Edu Comp, the computer, office, and art supply store in Vineyard Haven. What if I had to fumble my way through several drafts to make a decent sign? As it turned out, I did it in one take and now have three sheets of posterboard left over. Foamboard is definitely in my future.

Pussy hat by Sarah Vail, words by Judy Grahn, sign by me, and photo by Albert Fischer.

Here’s me peeking out from behind my sign, courtesy of Albert Fischer, a man of several trades, including photography, who also lives in my neighborhood. For a close-up of the sign, read on.

Thinking about what to put on my sign, I thought immediately of Judy Grahn’s Common Woman poems, especially the one that includes the lines “the common woman is as common as the best of bread / and will rise / and will become strong . . .”

I’m a bread baker after all, right? So this is what I came up with. The rose was added at the suggestion of a Facebook friend, in homage to “bread and roses,” a slogan that originated in the Lawrence (Mass.) textile strike of 1912.

 

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Bills to Watch Out For

This is the post that “Into the Mud” was supposed to be the introduction to. You can read it first, but you don’t have to. Here’s the key line: “many, many of us have only the shakiest grasp of how government works and how to influence it.” Not surprisingly, we have a hard time evaluating a candidate’s qualifications for a particular office. So we get swept up by grand promises with nary a thought for whether the candidate has the ability to deliver on them. Demonstrated competence is widely seen as a liability. This makes me crazy, and look at the mess it got us into.

So I’m doing my bit to get some of the very useful nitty-gritty out there. Lucky for me, since I’m basically lazy, the guy my district (Barnstable Dukes Nantucket) had the good sense to elect to the state house of representatives makes this easy. State Representative Fernandes, better known as Dylan, has already made several trips to the Vineyard to hear from us and tell us what he’s up to. He’s also one of only about five members of the House (membership: 160) to be sending out a regular e-newsletter. (To get on the list, use the email address on his legislative web page.)

dylan fernandes at Howes House

State Rep. Dylan Fernandes (left) hosts a legislative update at the Howes House, West Tisbury, on February 28, 2017. Constituent Paul Doherty listens.

Dylan’s most recent visit, this past Tuesday, was billed as a “legislative update” and so it was. The focus was on bills that he’s sponsoring or co-sponsoring, but I learned a few things about how the state legislature works. For instance, nearly 6,000 bills have been filed in the current session (the 190th if you’re keeping track) of the state legislature. Since every bill has to go to a committee before it reaches the house or senate floor, this should give you an idea of why things do not happen overnight. Dylan noted that it can take on average four or five sessions before a bill garners enough support and attention to come up for a vote.

Another thing I learned, because Dylan had paid a call on the M.V. Chamber of Commerce earlier in the day, was that thanks to the current administration’s policies international travel to the U.S. is down as much as 14 percent. This has major implications for our region and for Massachusetts as a whole because both rely significantly on tourism. One challenge for our state is to dissociate itself from the hate crimes and general hostility to “foreigners” that seems rampant in some areas of the country. For more info on the national picture, see “US Tourism Experiences a ‘Trump Slump'” in The Guardian, or Google the keywords for more stories.

Here are capsule descriptions of some of the bills that Dylan is involved with. My not-so-hidden agenda is to suggest how many issues affect one little state house district (ours!) and emphasize that they’re dealt with step by step, not by giving stump speeches and promising the moon. For more details, including their bill numbers (I told you I was lazy), visit his web page.

  • Along with 24 co-sponsors, Dylan has refiled a bill originally filed by his predecessor, Tim Madden, to study the causes and suggest remedies for ocean acidification (HD 2519 — see, maybe I’m not as lazy as I think). Because this has major implications for the commercial fishery, it’s supported by a coalition of business and environmental interests, not to mention the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).
  • A bill in support of the Paris Climate Agreements recommendations on greenhouse-gas emissions (HD 3089).
  • A bill to establish a commission of academics, frontline practitioners, and legislators to review the literature on long-term treatment for heroin/opioid addiction and make recommendations for how the state should spend its money (HD 2386). The heroin/opioid epidemic is a huge issue on the Cape & Islands, and more data are needed on the effectiveness of various long-term treatment methods.
  • A bill to make implicit-bias training mandatory for law-enforcement officers every three years (HD 1963). It’s currently optional. Studies have shown that such training is effective at reducing the biases that we often aren’t consciously aware of. Dylan noted that the island’s police chiefs are behind the bill. One attendee said that such training should be extended to teachers, social service workers, and others. Dylan agreed: “In my ideal world,” he said, “every government employee who interfaces with the public should have it.” This is a first step, and law enforcement is a good place to start because officers carry lethal weapons on the job.
  • An act authorizing the town of Nantucket to impose a real-estate-transfer fee to support affordable and workforce housing (HD 3792). This fee would only be imposed on real estate changing hands for more than $2 million, but the real estate lobby is still dead set against it. The Vineyard, like Nantucket, is in the throes of a major housing crisis, and there’s considerable support here for doing something similar, so we’re all watching to see how this bill fares.

OK, is that enough civic education for one day?

No, wait, one more thing: Here are Dylan’s committee assignments. He got all the ones he asked for, unusual for a freshman legislator, but he also had compelling reasons for all of them. Lucky for us, the house leadership agreed. (“Joint” means that the committee includes members of both the house and the senate. On Dylan’s web page you’ll find links that explain what each committee does.)

  • Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture
  • Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery
  • Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government
  • House Committee on Redistricting

And, as promised, here’s a photo of the resident malamute on the campaign trail last fall for both Dylan and our new state senator, Julian Cyr.

trav-jumps

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Into the Mud

The title of my first novel, The Mud of the Place, came from its epigraph, a quote from a 1994 interview with the late poet-writer-activist Grace Paley: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

All these years I’ve been applying it primarily to physical places, especially Martha’s Vineyard. Turns out it applies to other things as well. Like politics. I’ve always been interested in politics in the more general senses: the workings of the polis, the community, government at all levels. Electoral politics? Not so much.

Me at the Women's March in Boston, January 21, 2017.

Me at the Women’s March in Boston, January 21, 2017.

The year just past changed that. I got involved in a couple of local campaigns, contributed more than I could afford to them, the Clinton campaign, and Emily’s List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates running for office. Though our local results were great, the national results were disastrous. The extent of the disaster has been becoming ever clearer since January 20.

For many millions of us, the election was a political Hurricane Katrina, a wake-up call, a call to action. After years of keeping my distance, my feet have been sinking deeper into the political mud. It’s a cliché to compare politics to mud. Mud is seen as unpleasant. Keeping one’s hands clean — avoiding politics, not getting involved — is a virtue.

The big downside of this is that many, many of us have only the shakiest grasp of how government works and how to influence it.

This does not, however, stop us from talking endlessly about what’s wrong and what “they” should do about it.

Which is why I’m pushing Grace Paley’s take on mud: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.” The message here is that if your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you probably don’t know as much about it as you think you do. From the outside everything looks simpler and more monolithic than it is.

As my feet sink deeper into the mud of Martha’s Vineyard politics, I’m going to be mouthing off about it more in From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. Yep, politics is frustrating. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t wonder what the hell I’ve gotten into, not least because it’s also demanding and I’m already wondering if I have the patience and personal skills required to be effective.

But what I wrote about learning to play the guitar applies to other things as well, including politics: “Starting from scratch is a good thing because it’s a good thing to fumble and feel like an idiot and realize that you’re getting better.

So I hope you’ll hang on. The ride may get bumpy, but it probably won’t be boring, and I promise it won’t be about politics 24/7. To prove it, here’s Travvy (who just turned nine) with a marrow bone.

20170223-bone-3

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February License Plate Report

 

february 2017 license platesFebruary is generally a slow month — who comes to a New England seaside resort in the dead of winter? — but the month just past brought five good ones: Oklahoma, Illinois, Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas. Texas actually showed up earlier in the month, but it’s common enough that I forgot it was a first sighting and didn’t write it down.

Oklahoma and Alabama didn’t show up till June last year, and Oklahoma has been known to not show up at all. The Oklahoma plate was on a Budget rental truck. I saw it first at the West Tisbury library, and a week or so later at (IIRC) M.V. Wine & Spirits (aka “the beer store”). Alabama used to be one of the rarer ones, though never as rare as neighboring Mississippi, but in February I saw two different Alabama plates. I suspect at least one of them belongs to someone who’s living here long term.

The map so far reminds me of a pinto pony, with spots scattered across the nation’s midsection. Most years the coasts fill in early on then the color starts spreading into the middle. The states left white when the year runs out generally include the stack north of Oklahoma and the one anchored by Louisiana on the south end.

license plate mapHere’s last February’s map for comparison. The relatively early arrivals of Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, and Colorado make a big difference in how the map looks.

I’ve been wondering where Pennsylvania was hiding, but I see it didn’t show up till March last year. I’ll go out on a limb and predict it’ll do the same in 2017.

I also expect to see D.C., both Carolinas, Georgia, Oregon, and maybe Washington state before the month is out. We’ll see how it goes.

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Against Perfectionism

On January 30 I finally did the deed: I changed my voter registration from Unenrolled to Democrat. Written confirmation from the town clerk’s office was dated the 31st.

party-registration

A very small step for a woman, so it seems, but to me it was a pretty big deal. Once I’d decided in principle that the time had come, I still had to do that little dance you do along the shoreline to avoid getting your feet wet: Approach, jump back, approach, jump back . .

Background: Massachusetts is an open primary state. This means that in primary elections an Unenrolled voter can take the ballot of any party, cast her vote, and go back to being Unenrolled when she walks out of the polling place. It is possible, in other words, to hedge your bets — to vote with the Democrats without actually being one.

I came of political age at the tail end of the civil rights movement and in the heyday of the movement against the Vietnam War. In the early 1970s I was involved in student politics of various kinds. By the end of that decade, I was immersed in grassroots feminist organizing, with a focus on the Women in Print movement. Electoral politics and political parties were off on the peripheries somewhere.

Before 2016, I’d been deeply involved in one, only one, political campaign: the campaign to ratify the Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment in 1976. It was a feminist thing, not a Democrat-Republican thing.

And that’s where my reluctance to associate formally with any existing political party originally came from: my feminism. The left-right spectrum derives from traditional western political thinking, and “traditional” here means “dominated and defined by men.” Feminism is, among other things, a lens through which to examine those traditions. It does not fit neatly on the left-right spectrum. If there had been a feminist party, I might have signed up, but there wasn’t.

Over the years, however, it did not escape my notice that feminist and feminist-friendly candidates generally ran as Democrats and that the Republican Party was year by year becoming more anti-feminist and often blatantly misogynist. At the same time, the Democratic Party of the Bill Clinton years made me wary. Bill Clinton was the first winning presidential candidate I’d ever voted for, and the experience left such a sour taste in my mouth that I was still holding it against Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Trav and I found ourselves in Nashua, N.H., not long before the 2012 election.

Trav and I found ourselves in Nashua, N.H., not long before the 2012 election.

I enthusiastically supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. In 2012, Elizabeth Warren became the first political candidate whose campaign I made a recurring monthly contribution to. I was thrilled when she won. Her emails invariably end with “Thank you for being part of this,” and each time I get one I murmur, “You are so welcome.”

Why not take the plunge and register as a Democrat? Inertia was part of it, but there was something else: call it perfectionism. Organizations of any kind tend to be messy and cacophonous. Their goals and principles may be inspiring and beautiful, but the struggle to make them real never is. Compromises must be made. You can’t always get what you want. For a perfectionist, any flaw can be a deal-breaker.

Then along came 2016. Not since 1976 — 40 years ago! — have I been so involved in electoral politics. I blogged about it often enough (search on the tag “election 2016” if you’re interested in what I wrote), but only gradually did it become apparent to me how my involvement was making me think and rethink my aloofness from electoral politics. If 2016 taught me one thing, it’s this:

Perfectionism is a killer.

We’re drowning in “what went wrong” postmortems of the election just past, but this one deserves more attention. This was the year of the outsider, so runs the conventional wisdom, but what is it that made these outsiders so attractive?

They were unsullied by practical, real-world experience in government. They could present compellingly attractive (to their respective supporters) ideas with only the sketchiest of plans on how to achieve them.

Practical, real-world experience was redefined as a liability. In the real world, people don’t get to have it their way every time. They take positions that we don’t like. They even (gasp) make mistakes. And for perfectionists, every one of those mistakes and positions becomes a deal-breaker — a reason to sit out the election, or vote for a third-party candidate simon-purer than anyone with a chance of winning.

Since November 9, and especially since January 20, we’ve been face to face with the logical outcome of that perfectionism: the 45th president is the most monumentally unqualified ever to hold the office.

Gradually it dawned on me that my rage at Sanders, Sanders supporters, and (especially) third-party voters stemmed from what I had in common with them: perfectionism. That reluctance, that squeamishness, that horror of sullying my own hands and ideas with the compromises of the real world.

So I finally registered as a Democrat. Less than two weeks later, I found myself secretary of the Martha’s Vineyard Democrats, a sort of umbrella organization for Democrats from the six island towns. I was doing my little dance along the shoreline — approach, jump back, approach, jump back — then a wave came up stronger than I expected and suddenly I was in it up to my knees.

The 2016 election results were disastrous, but if there’s one good thing to be said about disasters it’s that they generally swamp all the fastidious qualms that come with perfectionism. That’s what seems to be happening now. May it continue, and may we learn from the experience.

 

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Remembering the Ferry Islander

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Originally posted on MV Obsession:
February 2007, exactly 10 years ago was the last time I sailed on the Islander.. Even though not sleek or graceful, for 57 years the Islander brought her own special beauty to the waters surrounding…

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Small Town Nuts & Bolts

handout-coverOne of the few good things to come out of last November’s presidential election results is a renewed interest in how government works, or is supposed to work, and how we can go about influencing it most effectively. So Saturday morning at the West Tisbury library, my town and the League of Women Voters presented a forum on how our town government works.

In the six towns of Martha’s Vineyard, as in most small towns across Massachusetts and elsewhere in New England, “we the people” are, in effect, the legislature. Each spring we assemble for the annual town meeting (ATM — not to be confused with automatic money dispensers; although dispensing money is always involved at an ATM, it’s rarely automatic). Between one year’s ATM and the next, we may also be summoned to a special town meeting (STM) or two. Town meeting approval is required before money can be spent or bylaws enacted.

Between ATMs the work of the town is conducted by boards, committees, and assorted officials. The “What Makes West Tisbury Tick?” handout that each of us found on our chair provides short descriptions of the major boards, committees, and offices, along with a handy organizational chart. Here’s what our town government looks like on paper:

town-chart

selectmen at town meeting

Town officials onstage at a special town meeting, November 2013. Starting 2nd from left: town administrator Jen Rand; selectmen Cindy Mitchell, Richard Knabel, and (standing) Skipper Manter, and town counsel Ron Rappaport.

The three-member board of selectmen serves as the town’s executive branch. They and all the officials (among them the town clerk and the tax collector) and members of other boards and committees (including the finance committee, the planning board, and town representatives on the Land Bank Commission and the Dukes County Commission) named above them are elected directly by the voters. Everyone in the boxes below is appointed or hired by the selectmen. Openings on those boards and committees are advertised in the paper and posted at town hall and on the town website.

Looks pretty complicated for a town with a year-round population of 3,151, doesn’t it? The upside is that there are lots of ways for citizens to get involved in running the town. To participate in town meeting, the only requirement is that you be registered to vote, and any citizen can petition to have an article included on the town meeting warrant.

Citizens can even call a special town meeting, but the number of signatures required for that is higher: either 200 or 10 percent of the town’s registered voters, whichever is less. The caveat here is that a quorum — 5 percent of the registered voters — is required before business can be transacted at any town meeting, and quorums are generally harder to obtain for a “special” than for the ATM.

Deadlines for filing petitions and nomination papers are included in the “What Makes West Tisbury Tick?” handout. A word to the wise, especially those prone to procrastinate: Since spring is town meeting and town election season, the deadlines range from “imminent” (the ATM warrant closes tomorrow, February 7) to “soon” (nomination papers have to be filed by March 10).

Julius Lowe, one of the younger speakers at the forum, was looking for a way to get involved when he was appointed to the zoning board of appeals (ZBA) three years ago. Asked about the time commitment, he noted that the ZBA meets weekly for one to two hours, and there are written proposals to catch up on between meetings. “Any board is a good starting point,” he said, if you’re looking to get involved.

Poet-artist-musician Dan Waters agreed. A person may start in one place and move to another as opportunities arise and interests evolve. A longtime library trustee, Dan is now the town moderator, the guy who runs our town meetings with tact and a firm grasp of parliamentary procedure. Is this a paid position? someone asked. “I get $250 a year,” he said.

Several other town officials were present to explain what they do and answer questions from the audience. Many of the questions suggested that the askers wanted to get more involved and were trying to figure out how to do it. How much does it cost to run for an elected office? The responses ranged from “nothing” to selectman Richard Knabel’s estimate of $3,000+. It depends on the office, whether the election is contested or not, and if it is, whether one is running against an incumbent.

Why do candidates so often run unopposed? The question was asked and the answers, all apt, ranged from lack of time to distaste for elections in general to the nominal compensation for many elected officials. The selectmen receive $5,000 a year. This is a part-time job, but it’s not that part-time. If that sum were divided by the number of hours each selectman puts in, the hourly rate would almost certainly be well below minimum wage.

And why in particular do incumbents so often run unopposed? One fellow remarked that running against an incumbent shouldn’t be a big deal. True enough in theory, but in practice? On Martha’s Vineyard, as in many small jurisdictions, politics are not only local, they’re personal. To run against an incumbent can affect one’s relationship not only with that person but with his or her friends, colleagues, and, especially, relatives.

The same goes for any stand taken in public. Vineyarders are inclined to be liberal when it comes to issues “out there,” but we’re rather more conservative when our complicated interpersonal relationships — “community,” in a word — are in play.

Toward the end of the forum, Tristan Israel, longtime selectman from Tisbury (the town up the road from which West Tisbury was created in 1892), noted that town politics aren’t about Democrats and Republicans. Town elections are nonpartisan; if a candidate has a party affiliation, it isn’t mentioned on the ballot.

This is true, and it’s why I think we’d all benefit from knowing more about how local government works, at least by observing occasional board and committee meetings and participating in town meeting. Dealing with the “nuts & bolts” of governance puts polarizing rhetoric in perspective. The day-to-day job of keeping the town ticking requires patience, tact, and flexibility. Guiding principles are essential, but if they aren’t grounded in the real world, the real work will bring them down to earth PDQ.

Even in a town the size of West Tisbury from the outside it’s easy to see town government as a closed shop, as “the establishment.” In reality it’s less monolithic and more porous than that. Same goes for the state and federal level. Government at all levels is made up of myriad boards, committees, elected and appointed officials, and the citizens who choose to interact with them. Be wary of the stump speaker who tries to tell you different.

 

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January License Plate Report

201701-jan-license-plate

After the very slim pickings of fall, January’s bounty is welcome indeed. This January’s tally of 16 isn’t great — anything less than 20 is nothing to brag about — but it sure beats last January’s 13.

The unexpectedly early birds are Colorado, Arizona, and Iowa, #8, #9, and #16, respectively. Last year they were #24, #31, and #37. A couple of days ago I was standing in line at the Vineyard Haven post office, which has a floor-to-ceiling window with parked cars on the other side. The non-Massachusetts plate was blue like Connecticut’s, but after staring at it an extra second I realized the blue was too light. So I stepped to one side so I could read the name: IOWA!

Iowa didn’t show up till August last year. I’m also sure I’ve seen at least two different Arizonas. No idea what that means.

Maine was the last of the New England states to appear. That was true last year too.

In order of sighting: Massachusetts, Vermont, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Virginia, California, Colorado, Arizona, New Hampshire, Maryland, Rhode Island, Ohio, Florida, Maine, and Iowa.

For the record, the haul for January 2016: Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, New Hampshire, California, Rhode Island, Vermont, Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, and Maine.

Pretty similar, eh? Tennessee was the outlier last year. Texas will almost surely be along soon, and (I’m predicting but not betting) Pennsylvania, Oregon, and North Carolina.

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