Small Potatoes

Moses Singletary was scheduled to be the first “public comment” speaker at the Thursday evening Board meeting but, given trouble he had in starting his car, he was late, and so Marvin Swallows and Bertie McGinty went ahead and had their turn making their comments to the board.

Their comments, as was the procedure normally followed at board meetings, 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 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 of the chair and agreement of at least two of the other four members, for discussion, and so they had not gotten to any issues like these in the seventeen years I had been attending board meetings.

The board was officially called the Board of Selectmen but most of us, and nearly all the women in town, either called it Board of Selectpersons or the Select Board or more often, The Board of Incredibles, though not to their faces nor in our letters to the editor of the local paper.

The newly elected 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. Hands down, the best, served in neat European-style folded paper cones, with a variety of seasonings, all available at no extra charge. The shop was a fixture in the community and his family was one of some sway and influence.

The other four members were considerably older and pretty much set to retire when their terms ended. They got elected and re-elected time after time for reasons most of us couldn’t fathom, other than the fact that they were the least odious of those running, and we came to regret doing so almost immediately. Understandably, they had been content to be carried along with Brett’s campaign slogan and his approach to governance, “Our business is the business of the town,” though none of them could precisely articulate the meaning of the slogan, but most of us 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 which we cherish now.”

When Marvin Swallows began speaking, he raised, once again, his concern about the bell tower in the town square. “Anyone can see,” he said, “that it’s too near the sea wall and it’s 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. You’re out of order, too. That’s not the way we work. Next… Mr. Singletary.”

Bertie looked over to where the other board members were sitting. They looked away.

Moses looked surprised. He seemed to be trying to get his thoughts in order. He seemed to have forgotten his introductory remarks, he was reordering his notes and when he did so and rose to speak, we could all see his hands shaking. His voice was tremulous.  

He cleared his throat. Swallowed forcefully. “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. You know I used to be a door-to-door salesman, salesperson, I mean, and so I know people pretty well and people know me, and I know the town pretty well and…”

“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 and 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. However, in the interest of time, I’ll give the petition to the clerk for the record.  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 on what he saw. It was called Democracy in America in which he praised 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 and it was hard to hear what he was saying so he raised his voice and he said,

“… 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, ‘I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all,’ I hope we can all prove him wrong. Thank you for your attention and with that I yield the floor.”

There was a long moment of silence. Looks among the members of the board were exchanged.

And then, in the silence that remained, forty-two of the fifty-three members of the public in attendance for the comment period picked up 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. And one could tell that warm sense of hope that they had felt when they left the building was, all too quickly, evaporating into the cool night air.