In Great Barrington, just as an example, we have to make choices. Who is a clear thinker? The last thing we need is a know-nothing who will vote blindly against any kind of town services. Nor do we need someone who wants to be a selectman but just shows up at the meetings and hasn’t done their homework and just raises their hands when a vote comes up like they do in China.
We need a person who has the confidence to look his or her colleagues in the eye and say, "No, I don’t agree." There are decisions to be made in every town. The concept of the town manager who can work with a board but not relieve them of their responsibility is one of the best things to come along in years. We have found such a person in Great Barrington -- someone who can relate to her community and to the ultimate decision makers on the select board.
One of the reasons why conservatives are often put on boards is because people have just had enough. As one prominent national figure might put it, "The taxes are too damn high."
In Great Barrington, we have a library that cost a fortune, a Taj Mahal fire station and a police department with a lot of personnel for a relatively small town. We have great schools, but when it comes to the balance between too much in taxes and just the right amount of services, the electorate can be counted on to support education but in a thoughtful way.
I was, for example, in favor of bringing our high school up to snuff so that our kids had every chance, but the see-saw on taxes and services bottomed out when the idea didn’t get enough votes. Hey, these are our kids and our kids’ children. We know they have to be supported. But the voters spoke and had to be listened to. The idea of a second vote on the same issue was seen as offensive but there were people who might have gone either way on the substance of the issue.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (Alford), I was once a selectman and then town moderator. I wasn’t all that good at either job, and it gave me a great appreciation for the people who are willing to get their hands dirty. The job, even in a small town, can be taxing, especially when colleagues decide they want the job but not the work, and too often you are sitting there all alone.
Now with the increasing complexity of town governments, the job has become even tougher. You can go out Green River Road in Alford and you will see the ghost of the famous Alford Pickle Factory that the federal government spent a fortune on. The whole process ended up in a total fiasco and cost this once young college professor a lot of time trying to make sense out of things.
Plus, there are the inevitable calls from voters in the middle of the night, demanding you do something about the dead skunk in front of someone’s house. Trust me, three years was enough for me, and far better folks came along to do the job.
There are all kinds of good reasons to run for public office, the best being that someone wants to give back to his or her town. There are a lot of good people who do these jobs. They come from all kinds of political orientations.
Then again, there are always people who have blood in their eye and treat being on such a board as "blood sport." They spend enormous amounts of time on the phone spewing venom and making trouble. We need to avoid empowering these types.
So, we have to do our homework and try to figure out who is who. It’s not always an easy thing to do, but with a little attention, it can be done.
Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast.