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Letter to the Editor: Participatory Government

Discussing Local Government and Political Discourse in Weston

Recently there has been some discussion in the Town Crier about open government and the governing process and I want to add my thoughts to the discussion. Another recent guest column discussed concerns about participatory government generally and specifically the running of town meetings, Board of Selectmen meetings, and Open Meeting Law issues. This interest in open government is right on the money. Government tends to become dysfunctional when conducted out of the spotlight, with special interests and self-dealing, or the appearance of both, all too often coming into play.

We only have to look to the state probation department or the Chelsea Housing
Authority for recent examples. The state’s Open Meeting and Public Bidding laws are vitally important tools to help manage this problem. Whether by the media, the loyal opposition, or whatever, everyone benefits from having the dynamic tension of some push back.

My assessment of Weston’s town government is:

Clean Government
Weston has a long history of clean government. In my lifelong time in Weston, I have never heard of any credible concern of corruption or even significant malfeasance on the part of our elected or appointed officials or employees.

The accountability, both legal and by virtue of living in a small town, has worked well. My general observation is that people are good and want to do the right thing. When you provide them with a supportive environment you get good results, and that’s what Weston has done.

Effective Government
Weston’s consistently top-rated schools and credit ratings are independent confirmation of our effective government. Those do not simply happen by themselves. They are the result of dedication and efforts of well over 100 volunteers who serve each year on the boards and committees managing the affairs of our town, as well as all of the volunteers and participants in other town organizations who support and work with our elected and appointed officials and staff. These people take time out of their lives to contribute to making this community run well and be a better place to live.

One reason Weston’s town government is effective is, like many small towns in the area, our politics are non-partisan. Political parties have their place but can also sometimes lead away from consensus, as we have seen recently in our Federal government.

Another important factor is that we have three selectmen and a history of them finding consensus on issues. Our selectmen rarely take action without all three being in support. In towns where the Select Board consists of five people, they are far more likely to have majority rules, rather than consensus. This leads to factions, winners, and losers and some of the less productive aspects of partisan government.

Not Perfect
Even with our history, strong in success and lacking in misconduct, problems can and have arisen. Smart people view the same situation and reach different conclusions on how to address it. Good people make mistakes. Volunteers have limited time.

On any given issue, some people are highly informed and some aren’t. Different people have different interests and values, and make different choices. All of this is inevitable. The evidence of a strong community isn’t the lack of these sorts of challenges but rather how we respond to them.

As chairman of one town committee, I know the members of the committee are aware of the requirements of the Open Meeting law and make great effort to comply. It is not always easy. The 48-hour meeting posting requirement makes last minute conflicts and schedule changes challenging. I don’t know for certain and therefore can’t say whether we have been fully compliant with the letter of the law in every instance but can say absolutely we have been compliant with the spirit, 100 percent of the time. For all the boards and committees I have served on or observed, the same is true.

Recently, some have taken our moderator to task for changes she has made in the procedures of town meeting, and our selectmen for proposed changes to how we pay for our trash disposal. I have had the opportunity to know and work with our selectmen and moderator over many years. They are intelligent and dedicated public servants who devote substantial time and energy.

Our government officials deal with hundreds of matters large and small each year and can’t possibly give each item the same level of attention. Triaging these issues is a regular part of their work. While they may get that right most of the time, there will be times when issues are more complex or of greater interest to residents than they expect. And, sometimes the reverse will be true. With the benefit of hindsight, I think it’s fair to say there should have been more advance communication and discussion about these a few recent issues. But to suggest these efforts were undertaken with bad intentions or less than good faith effort however is unfair and unsupported by the evidence.

Political Tone: A Bit Sharp
Recently The Boston Globe ran an article about a Needham selectman and longtime volunteer who was resigning. The selectman, who was praised in the article, was resigning because of the tone of town politics, and repeated acts of vandalism against his personal property which appear to be connected to his service to the town.

In media news coverage of politics, moderation doesn’t sell. It’s the extreme that gets attention. Making outrageous claims and calling opponents names, these are the things that get covered. Media figures on both ends of the spectrum use polarizing language to attract viewers. Politicians desperate for the media coverage they can translate into fundraising are happy to provide fodder for the media. It makes money for the media and helps the politicians raise their campaign dollars, but it makes it harder to reach consensus about solving problems.

We are bombarded with these messages and so we begin to not only think they’re acceptable, but even that they’re the best approach. But these tactics foster an environment of conflict rather than consensus. There are no winners. Good, well-meaning people, like the gentleman from Needham, are deterred from public service. In more extreme cases, you get incidents like what resulted in the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona a year ago.

I want to live in a town that doesn’t fall for the hype. Let’s reject the talk radio and network news rhetoric and tactics and have thoughtful discussion about the serious business of our town. It doesn’t mean we are going to agree with our elected officials on every issue, but inciting antipathy and fostering misunderstanding don’t serve the interests of the town.

How You Can Make Weston Better
We have excellent schools, a high level of town services, one of the lowest tax rates in the area, and well-maintained infrastructure. It’s hard to say that we are dramatically off course and need an urgent fix. At the same time, there’s always room for improvement.
To that end, I suggest three new year’s resolutions:

1. Get Involved: Our town government is only as good as the people who
participate in it. You can apply a board or committee, run for elected office,
join a town organization, or simply attend keep informed by attending meetings
or watching the Weston Media Center’s coverage of them on our local access
cable station. A healthy debate is the best way to identify the priorities and
forumate and implement solutions, and a health debate only happens when you
get involved.

2. Communicate: The law requires a minimum level of communication that town
officials must maintain. Weston has exceeded those levels in many ways and won awards for the accessibility afforded by the town’s website. Town officials have opportunities to even better use the wide range of media today to solicit input and communicate decisions and the reasoning behind them. And communication is a two-way street. The citizens of this town need to keep informed, attend meetings, share ideas and opinions, and speak up when they have questions, suggestions, or concerns.

3. Disagree respectfully: If you think I am mistaken with my facts, tell me where
I’ve got them wrong and what is correct. If you disagree with my conclusion,
tell me your conclusion and why you’ve reached it. Maybe one or both of us
will modify our views as a result of the discussion. That’s why government has
meetings and hearings, to facilitate fact-finding and discussion of opinions and
values. In the end, some views prevail and others may not. That’s the way the
democratic process works best. When we resort to name calling or questioning
someone’s motives without cause people respond defensively, striking back
at the perceived attacker. It’s human nature but initiates a cycle of attack and
counterattack. It’s natural, but not productive.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree?

-submitted by Ed Coburn, a lifelong Weston resident and member of Weston’s Affordable Housing Trust and chairman of the Weston Tercentennial Committee.

KarenL January 18, 2012 at 10:04 PM
I love voting alongside acquaintances of differing political affiliations. It is so strange and uplifting to be voting on the same side of issues. I wish the state or country could be run so sensibly. Thanks for a well written article.

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