It’s town meeting season on Martha’s Vineyard. Four towns held theirs this past Tuesday, including my town of West Tisbury.
Aside: In Vineyard newspapers, ATM is shorthand for “annual town meeting.” We know it doesn’t always mean “automatic teller machine,” just the way we know that hereabouts SSA usually means “Steamship Authority,” not “Social Security Administration.”
Since I moved back to West Tisbury in 2007, I’ve been a pretty regular attendee, both of the ATM and of the “specials” (yeah, the papers often call them STMs) that are called when an issue can’t wait till the next annual. My presence makes no difference to the outcome, but it’s educational: I get a glimpse of the nuts and bolts and turning gears that keep the town running.
In this age of social media and virtual communication, it’s also mildly thrilling to see so many of my fellow citizens gathered in the same physical space.
According to the 2014 Annual Report, West Tisbury had 3,168 residents as of October 2014, of whom 2,510 were registered to vote as of last December. For the ATM, 300 is considered good. We were, I think, a little under that Tuesday night, but we constituted a quorum. A quorum is 5% of the registered voters; at present, I’m told, that’s 123.5. Without a quorum no official business can be transacted.
Aside: As sometimes happens, the citizens didn’t get through the long warrant on Tuesday night, so the ATM was continued to the next night. On Wednesday, there wasn’t a quorum — possibly because so many townsfolk, including me, were at the high school’s Performing Arts Center, listening to the amazing Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn and their whole flock of banjos. The new date is Tuesday, April 28. If you’re a registered West Tisbury voter, please show up so we can finish this off.
This year’s annual town meeting had a special significance that had nothing to do with any of the warrant articles. Barely a month after last year’s ATM, Pat Gregory, our longtime town moderator, was murdered while hiking in California. The whole town, the whole island, was stunned. Life has slowly returned to normal, at least we pretend it has, but as town meeting approached many of us braced for the inevitable reminder of our loss. A town meeting without Pat at the podium?
Instead, Pat was on the cover of the 2014 Annual Report, looking so much like Moderator Pat that for a moment I couldn’t believe he wasn’t there.
Lucky for us, the eminently qualified Dan Waters ran for and was elected to the post in a special election last fall. For more about him, why he ran, and what the loss of Pat Gregory meant to the town, see Pat Waring’s fine story in the April 8 Martha’s Vineyard Times. (Dan, a renowned poet and print-maker as well as dedicated community activist, has even contributed to this blog. See “Are You a Meeting-holic?” The guy knows his meetings.)
Dan did an excellent job in his debut, and it sure wasn’t his fault that I left early, at around 9:30. My brain was shutting down and I could barely keep my eyes open. This was probably the most boring ATM I’ve ever been to. I made a choice: Editing, reading, and catching up on email were a better use of my time than sitting through the last hour and a half of town meeting.
As I walked home — I live about an eight-minute walk from the school, where our town meetings are held — I wondered why this particular meeting was so deadly dull. It wasn’t that there was nothing at stake: the proposed budget was around $17 million, and articles on the warrant dealt with, among many other things, the regional school district. But, as is often the case, there was little wiggle room in the articles. A tremendous amount of work goes into preparing budgets — that’s why we have town boards, school committees, and, especially, the finance committee, which reviews and makes a recommendation about virtually every department’s budget and every large proposed expenditure. On town meeting floor it just is not possible to rework budgets that have been months in the crafting.
At one of my first West Tisbury town meetings, ca. 1988, some townsfolk were not happy about the snowmobiles in their part of town. Discussion went on for, as I recall it, about 45 minutes. (This was before Pat Gregory became town moderator. I’m pretty sure he would have gently brought it to a close once no new thoughts or information was being added, which was after about 15 minutes.) By contrast, the school budget — which was much smaller then than it is now but was still a hefty chunk of the total — was passed with minimal discussion in about 10 minutes.
Hence I came up with “Snowmobiles in Christiantown Syndrome”: At town meeting, the amount of discussion devoted to an issue is inversely proportional to (1) its importance, and (2) how much preparation is required to make a meaningful contribution.
Almost immediately I realized that this was not just about town meeting. In fact, it applied to just about every group I’d ever belonged to. It absolutely applies to political discourse in the U.S. and probably many other places as well. A corollary might be applied to the news media: The coverage of an issue is inversely proportional both to its importance and to the details and understanding required to explain it.
This is really why I’ve become a regular town meeting goer: It reminds me at least once and often two or three times a year how challenging self-governance is, even in a town of 3,168 people, many of whom have at least a nodding acquaintance with each other. The U.S. population is something like 318.9 million. That is more than 100,000 times the population of West Tisbury, and the overwhelming majority of us have almost no clue about what the lives of our fellow citizens are like.
So it’s not all that hard to figure out why so much discussion is devoted to, say, same-sex marriage, gun control, and immigration reform while big banks crash the economy and big corporations buy up Congress.
And one more thing: In a Facebook discussion the morning after town meeting, one attendee wondered what happened to the fiscal prudence for which New Englanders have long been famous. Our town tends to spend money like there’s no tomorrow, or at least as though the money isn’t coming from somewhere, i.e., our taxes. Snowmobiles in Christiantown Syndrome applies here too: It’s easier to cut the small expenses that have little impact on the total than to take a hard look at, say, the school budget, which is huge and complex.
Fiscal prudence means making hard choices. This will get funded, but that won’t. This will, but that won’t — over and over again.
The budgets that get cut, the items that don’t get funded: these aren’t just about numbers or inanimate objects. They come with people attached — the people who developed the budget, the people who might benefit from the expenditure. And we usually have at least a nodding acquaintance with those people. Maybe we know them pretty well. Maybe they’re us.
“Fiscal prudence” sounds great in theory. Most of us are all for it — until it comes to saying no to a cause we support, or someone we’re going to see at the post office tomorrow.