Saturday, August 7, 2010

New Amherst Select Board Election Slogan? "Vote for Us: We're Not the Wing-Nuttiest!"

All of a sudden, a lot of people here (with obvious exceptions, not to mention residents of the surrounding region) are feeling rather good about the Select Board.  It is a strange and disconcerting feeling.  Not bad—just strange.  (People say that our meetings are boring.  I tell them: "that's the way we like 'em!")

Why this should be the case is something of a mystery.  If I were a mystical or superstitious person, I would posit a new natural law according to which the focus of turmoil and acrimony periodically migrates from one town board or committee to another, a sort of mischievous demonic counterpart to Hegel's famous "world spirit."

That's certainly the way it looks.  The Select Board, in the more distant past often either a site of dissension or subject of scorn and ridicule (sometimes both) has in recent years functioned as a collegial and efficient body.  When I contemplated running for office, all the then-serving members assured me that it was a good group of people who, although not agreeing on everything, got along well with and respected one another. I sensed that at the little ceremony honoring outgoing former Select Board member and Chair Gerry Weiss in March.  When he and current Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe paid tribute to one another—this, despite their different personalities and political styles—one felt that they really meant it.

Perhaps this is what is behind some recent comments.

Over on Larry Kelley's popular and sometimes rambunctious blog, the famed "anonymous" commenters paid (backhanded) tribute to us twice in the space of a few days.  One said:
It's time to Amherst voters to grasp that the wing-nuttiest board or committee in town right now is not Select Board (not by a long shot), not even School Committee, and not Planning Board. It is, and has been for some time now, our Library Trustees.

Now our library employees are paying the price. It's time to wake up and smell the lunacy.
Another put it this way.
maybe Amherst will wake up. Our school committee/regional school committee is quite dysfunctional. Now our library trustees seem to be equally at each other's throats. Thank goodness for the Select Board which seems oddly content and functional.
Granted, someone else responded to that comment about the Select Board with "LOL." Still, I think "content and functional" is actually a very accurate description. I'll own that.

(Our intrepid School Committee bloggers, Catherine Sanderson and Rick Hood, presumably have their hands full with their own town body, and don't need to comment on ours.)

And just this week, writing more formally and at far greater length in the Amherst Bulletin, former Marks Meadow Principal Michael Greenebaum observes:
Perhaps it is time to think a bit about boards and administration, about governing and managing, and about an etiquette of controversy in the age of the Internet.
We read this week about tension among the Jones Library trustees and the director of the Jones Library. The Amherst School Committee has recently seen itself as policymaker, manager, consultant (and lobbyist) and has positioned itself as antagonistic to the superintendent of schools. And while it now seems like ancient history, it was not that long ago that the Select Board was embroiled in its own epic controversies. This is all relatively new. Amherst had long prided itself on the ethic of volunteerism that permeated both our elected and appointed committees. We had been grateful to our friends and neighbors who undertook the time-consuming and stressful work of governing our town, schools and libraries. And we were relieved to have competent and resourceful managers to administer these three institutions. Until recently boards and managers worked closely together, saw themselves on the same team, as it were. But those days are gone, at least for now.
Continuing, he notes that undeniably fuzzy boundaries between such tasks as governance and management become more dangerous when the Open Meeting law and blogosphere allow or force us to air our differences in public and all the time.

He asks:
I wonder if we can agree about this: When the boards make the news the situation is not healthy. Recently, the School Committee has been publicly taking credit for a series of decisions. Regardless of the decisions themselves, this is bad news. When we read about the library trustees instead of about the libraries, this is bad news. It is worth remarking that, unlike previous years, there is little bad news about the Select Board. This is not because its members always agree with each other; they do not. It is not because the Select Board always agrees with the town manager. It is because the current Select Board and town manager have adhered to an etiquette of controversy. This etiquette has little to do with politeness, with saying "please" or smiling. It has to do with stating clear positions, acknowledging that other positions are held as sincerely as one's own and avoiding sectarianism. Symptoms of trouble are excessive use of "I" and "we," and assertions of authority. We have seen a lot of both recently.
I'm glad he said the answer is not banal or hypocritical "politeness" and "smiling."  "Etiquette of controversy" nicely describes a situation in which we pull no punches but "fight fair" and respect those who do likewise.

I of course wish that all of us on all Town boards and committees could get along better, but one step—I mean: board—at a time.

Anyway, I'll leave it at that. The topic bears on history to the extent that we are talking about the evolution of Amherst politics, but I won't belabor the story.  Too much else to cover.  (And who knows what will happen next?)
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