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:


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.


About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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3 Responses to Small Town Nuts & Bolts

  1. It’s just plain time to quit deferring to other people, hiding behind the excuse that we are too busy to get involved. This is how we got into the Big Political Mess we are in today — by not participating in the little political messes!


    • One thing I like about town government is that ideology nearly always takes a back seat to practical matters, not to mention perseverance, ingenuity, and the ability to get along with others. No, it’s not generally the place to pursue, say, criminal justice reform or reproductive rights (although you never can tell when state and national issues will manifest in a local context!), but the skills deveoped on the local level can be applied anywhere.

      Besides, you would have been impressed with the snack table, which included bagels and cream cheese, mini doughnuts, and other good stuff. 🙂


  2. tompostpile says:

    West Tisbury seceded from Tisbury and was incorporated as an independent Town in 1892. The 1900 census counted 442 souls. In the next four decades, our numbers steadily decreased to a low of 260 in 1940. In 1950, about when my family moved to town, the population had risen to 347. The next ten years added 13 people. By 1970, growth had begun, and we were up to 453. We doubled to 1,010 in 1980, and then got 700 more in the ‘nineties and 700 more in the ‘aughts. The 2010 census saw us at 2,740. As late as 1960 we were still a 19th century village.
    Today we are pretty much a suburban mecca, beset by bureaucracy.
    Although my commitment to staying here for the rest of my life is strong, there are times when I want to flee to some other “properly sized” village of fewer than 400 folks.


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