Small Potatoes

Moses Singletary was scheduled to be the first speaker at the Thursday evening Board of Selectmen meeting public comment period but he was late, and so Marvin Swallows and Bertie McGinty went ahead and had their turn making their comments to the board. According to procedure at board meetings, their comments would be taken up at a future meeting, though by experience, no date would be set for that and, given the way the board worked, it was possible, and even likely, that they would never reach a decision about when they might even get to scheduling a discussion, let alone actually taking up the issue in a future public meeting, by which time their comments would be buried among the “Old Business” issues on the agenda, which required the re-initiation by the chair and agreement of at least two of the other four members, for discussion, and so they had not gotten to any issues raised in public comment periods in thirty-seven years of recorded board meetings. Nearly all the women and most of the men town, when they paid attention, either called it the BRA, Board of Recalcitrant Adolescents, or something the local paper wouldn’t print The new board chair, Brett Bogart, was the owner of a successful local business, Small Potatoes, located in the center of town, with, admittedly, the best fresh homemade French fries on the planet, served in neat European-style folded paper cones, with a variety of seasonings, available at no extra charge. The shop was a fixture in the community and his family was one of some sway and influence. Brett’s campaign slogan and his approach to governance was, “Our business is Good for Business” and most in town knew it meant something like, “Keep the status quo, support and protect, at all costs, the interests of the businesses in town and beware of outsiders or do-gooders who will bring ruin to what we have and cherish now and will want to build more parking” Marvin Swallows began speaking, raising, once again, his concern about the bell tower in the town square. “Anyone can see,” he said, “that the sea wall is cracking, eroding from below, on land that’s sinking each year in some places and rising in others, and soon, maybe in the next nor’easter it will fall, taking our houses with it and none of us can get flood insurance and we have to apply for federal assistance now to make the structural changes, and we can’t afford to just study it for another three years, because our homes are all we have and none of us are your town millionaires. So I make a motion that the Board…” “… I’m sorry, Mr. Swallows, that’s out of order. This is the public comment period, you can’t make motions at this time, next, Ms. McGinty… next,” Chair Bogart said. “Can’t you let Marvin finish,” said Ms. McGinty, “I’ll give my time over to him.” “Sorry, no can do, Bertie, and you’re out of order, too. That’s not the way we work. Next… Mr. Singletary.” Moses looked surprised. He was just getting his thoughts in order, having forgotten his introductory remarks, and reordering his notes. His hands were shaking. His voice was tremulous. “Chair Bogarts,” he said. “I’m not going to ask to give my time over to Marvin there so don’t cut me off, thank you. I have a petition here signed by forty-seven certified residents of the town, many of them right here tonight with a request for the Board to put the issue of the policy of the Board appointing or removing members of town committees, boards, and commissions, up for a vote on the next meeting agenda.” “It’s Bogart, no “s” Mr. Singletary, and time is short. Please get to the point of the petition you have there.” “I will Mr. Chair, but I have the floor, and this is the public comment period, and I am speaking for the public.  So please don’t interrupt me again until I relinquish the floor, as you so willy-nilly do to others. I will read the policy proposal, but I will say first and foremost, that this policy and every policy you may make is less of a concern to us than the board’s total lack of consistency with which policies are implemented. The board has an appalling record, for all to see, of following or not following policies or applying policies arbitrarily or retroactively to suit the board’s whims and preferences. And let me remind you that the board is elected by the people to do the administrative work the people have assigned to it and nothing more.” “You are out of order!” “No, you are out of order. Like it or not it, this is a public comment period, whether or not you like what the comments are or who is making them. But before I do, I want you to know that we all see what’s going on here. Whether it’s affordable housing, or the water regulations, or COVID mandates, or zoning, or the climate committee work, things we all care about, your wishes or your will are not our command anymore. “Moses, you’re not delivering the freaking ten commandments here. Get to your point, if there is one.” “You want the point? Here it is. If you remember your history, Alexis de Tocqueville visited us in the 1830’s and wrote a book praising our form of Town Meeting democracy… “Mr. Singletary you’re…” “This is not a question-and-answer period, Mr. Bogart, it is for public comment, and I will continue my public comment…” At that point there was, for the first time all evening, a round of applause from those in attendance. “You tell him, Moses!” they cheered, and they clapped louder, and Bogart called for quiet, and Moses kept on speaking, “… but de Tocqueville soon came to realize that democratically elected officials, like yourselves, when unchecked, would hold too tightly to their power and authority and democracy would be undermined and he said, and I quote…” Bogart banged his gavel on the tables. “No French quotes are allowed in here, Moses.” He turned beseechingly to the Town Clerk. There was a long moment of silence. Looks among the members of the board were exchanged. The Town Clerk rose to her feet. “I see no reason why quotes of any sort are out of order here,” she said. “You’re out of order too,” said Bogart. “The time for public comment has expired.” And then, in the silence that fell, forty-two of the fifty-three members of the public in attendance for the comment period, feeling somewhat vindicated, collected their things and made their way out the door. They gathered in the parking lot in the fading mid-summer light. They looked at one another. They all realized that Moses had not read a single word of the petition on board policy he came to read, and the warm sense of hope that they had felt when they left the building was, all too quickly, evaporating like sweat off a pig’s nose, into the cool night air.

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