Neither dogs nor marijuana was on the warrant for West Tisbury’s annual town meeting last night, so most of the meeting was pretty dull. Most of the 42 articles passed either by unanimous voice vote or by a vocal majority so obvious that no hand count was necessary. We moved money around. We authorized the town’s contribution to constructing a new Little League field in Oak Bluffs, furthering an affordable-housing project in Tisbury, upgrading the electrical system of the county courthouse in Edgartown, and supporting Aquinnah’s efforts to acquire, restore, and relocate the Gay Head light, which is in danger of falling off a cliff.
We took the penultimate step toward making the town treasurer an appointed rather than elected position, this with the hearty support of the town’s current (elected) treasurer. The idea is to open the field to qualified candidates who don’t live in town. The final step is approval in tomorrow’s town election.
Article 4, authorizing funds for a new police cruiser, was postponed indefinitely because the cruiser slated for retirement is still working fine and “you know how Skipper drives.” Skipper Manter is both a police officer and a selectman. Everybody laughed.
Article 21 wanted to see if the town would appropriate $75,000 to replace the fence around the town cemetery. One resident said that her forebears, who are buried in the cemetery, would not approve spending that much money to fix the fence. Another, an abutter, noted that cemetery visitors were sometimes accompanied by loose dogs; she wanted a sound fence between the dogs and her chickens. A third asked who the fence was trying to keep in. We laughed at that too. The voice vote was ambiguous, and for good reason: by hand count the vote was 108–102 in favor of the new fence.
Even the last three articles on the warrant, 41 through 43, passed handily, though they all dealt with rules and regulations and so were scarily long. Article 41, adding “General Requirements for All Solar Energy Systems” to the zoning bylaws, passed unanimously. Article 42, a string of amendments to the zoning bylaws, prompted some discussion but passed by a lopsided voice vote. “150 to 4,” ruled the moderator. Article 43, proposed by the board of health to regulate “the content and application of fertilizer for turf,” also passed unanimously.
As expected, the most contentious article on the warrant was #32. This asked the town to appropriate $30,000 “for design and permitting for dredging to preserve the Mill Pond,” with funding contingent upon the commitment of another $20,000 from private sources. Discussion took up the better part of an hour — the whole meeting was done in about three — and if it wasn’t quite as heated as recent years’ debates about marijuana dispensaries in town or dogs on Lambert’s Cove Beach, it came pretty close.
Why, you ask, did we wrangle so long over $30,000 when in the course of the evening we approved a town budget of close to $16 million? Is this yet another instance of the length of debate being inversely proportional to the importance of the issue? Yes, but it also illustrates William Blake’s line about seeing “the world in a grain of sand.” Big-picture politics can be downright baffling unless you pay close attention to how we act and interact at the most local level.
Consider: The Mill Pond is, as several speakers pointed out in various ways, the symbolic heart of the town. Virtually everyone in West Tisbury, and many people from other towns, passes it several times a week. We watch for the swans and the ducks, we note the changing of the seasons, we love to see kids standing with their fishing rods at the water’s edge. Everybody wants to save the Mill Pond.
Several speakers on both sides of the issue waxed rhapsodic and at some length about the beauty of the Mill Pond and its historic significance. In this case, however, the devil was definitely in the details — on which the rhapsodies were rather short. Everyone was on board with the rhapsodies. What we disagreed on was whether there was a problem and, if so, what should be done about it now.
After all, we’d already voted unanimously, and with minimal discussion, to add $15,000 to the $15,030 appropriated at last year’s ATM for a study of the Mill Brook watershed. The Mill Brook flows through the Mill Pond; hence an understanding of what’s going on in its watershed is helpful in figuring out what’s best for the pond. Quite a few townsfolk wondered why we should prepare for dredging before we knew whether dredging was necessary. Others were certain that without dredging the pond was in great danger.
At last one citizen noted that we were all looking at the same data but disagreeing on what they meant. This, he suggested, indicated that we weren’t ready to act yet.
And when the question was finally called, that is how we voted, but the vote was close: 119 to 110, announced the moderator, after the vote counters finished counting and reported their results.
Hard facts, multiple interpretations, appeals to history that didn’t have all that much to do with either the facts or the question of what to do about them, invocations of posterity that didn’t either, hints that if we didn’t act now bad things would surely come to pass, and general agreement that saving the Mill Pond was a good idea — it was all there. Substitute “the commonwealth,” “the United States,” or “the planet” for “the Mill Pond” and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what goes on in Boston, Washington, and the rest of the country.
The difference, maybe, is that we were all talking to each other as we filed out of the gym after the 2014 annual town meeting was adjourned, no matter how we voted.