Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lessons from Select Boards Past

The Select Board learned today that Amherst's privately sponsored Fourth of July Parade will not take place because of rising costs, which the organizers cannot absorb.

Over at Only In the Republic of Amherst, Larry Kelley—who, as residents know, has some strong feelings about the matter—reviews the history of the event: The publicly sponsored parade ended after the national Bicentennial in 1976 (well before my time here). In the wake of the September 11 attacks, a private group revived the parade in 2002, in part as a tribute to the military and local public safety employees. In Kelley's summary, the town persecuted the parade organizers because they focused on the celebratory and thus excluded political protesters. The dispute came to a head in 2008, when "then town manager Larry Shaffer arbitrarily decided the town would run a 7/4 parade and the private committee would not be issued a permit." After protest by locals such as Kelley as well as the ACLU, he says, "the town quietly backed down."

He concludes, "Last year with a new town manager and normalized Select Board, for the first time in our short history there was no controversy--no mention of anti war protests one way or the other. Like all the previous years, the parade itself went off without a hitch."

I appreciate the collective compliment, though we can take no real credit for a simple hands-off policy, and I make no comment on our predecessors, not least because I did not follow the intricacies of this controversy at the time.

It is, however, interesting to note that Select Boards can err in more than one way when dealing with the delicate question of political protest and public space. The old Amherst Town Hall seemed to insist on a parade that included protest. By contrast, fairly long ago and sort of far away, another Select Board saw its role as consisting in denying the right to protest.

On this date in 1971, protesting anti-war Vietnam veterans, anticipating the "occupy" movement, were arrested after refusing to abandon an illegal encampment on the Lexington Green, where the American Revolution began. In the view of the Lexington Select Board chair, Americans had in effect fought the Revolution in order to ensure that every local bylaw was enforced to the letter rather than to safeguard, well, the right to popular protest and revolution. Read my post from 2010 for the story behind what Mass Moments calls "the largest mass arrest in Massachusetts history"—and the aftermath, including the fate of that Select Board.

Now that Town Meeting is over, I've had more time to be out and about, and I invariably run into acquaintances at the grocery or garden store. In the past ten days, both Amherst folks and residents of the outlying towns have told me they watch Select Board and Town Meeting on TV, and asked: It looks so deadly boring. How do you stand it?

My answer to them is the one I've always given in these pages: that's the way we like it (1, 2, 3). As the collective chief executive of the Town, our job is to establish general policy directions and oversee the political process (as well as handle a lot of mundane—and yes, "boring"—tasks such as licensing and appointments). We don't need more drama. We don't want to be the main story, and we shouldn't be.

Just consider the alternative (see above).

This past Memorial Day weekend, we were grateful that we could avoid needless controversy and instead focus on the real significance of the occasion: take part in the parade and ceremony honoring our living veterans and our war dead—including, during this sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the African-Americans and other residents who fought to preserve the Union and end slavery. (a post on that is forthcoming).

Indeed: that's the way we like it.


• Scott Merzbach, "Fourth of July parade in Amherst to be cancelled due to insufficient funds," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 31 May 2012
• Diane Lederman, "Amherst July 4th parade off because of funding woes," The Republican, 31 May 2012

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