If we don't vote or if we do vote but don't know a thing about who we are voting for, we leave most of the decision making in the hands of a relative few. If your town has a tree warden, do you really know who that person is and what he or she knows about trees? Same thing goes for the people who run the local library and decide how many hours the place will stay open. If the relative few have personal agendas or if the candidates we vote for are unfit, we may end up with serious problems. We need to pay more attention to what we are doing.
On the Hill in Great Barrington, it is common to see lawn signs in favor of one candidate or another. Sometimes these signs can help us figure out who is the flavor of the month. Sometimes they can tell us about alliances. If the sign for a wealthy candidate running for selectman looks exactly like the sign of a not so wealthy candidate running for the finance committee, well, one and one often add up to two. Could it be that someone is paying for the signs of both? Just saying, I mean, asking.
This leads to the concept of accountability. How often do we voters hold someone responsible for policy outcomes gone wrong? I think it's fair to say that the Main Street reconstruction process in Great Barrington is at least perceived as having gone wrong. When a policy goes south, the first instinct of those on a board of selectmen or a city council is to find somebody to blame. In the case of that Route 7 monster that is about to affect all of Berkshire County and maybe even Vermont and Connecticut, members of the sitting Board of Selectmen were the prime architects. Naturally, and probably correctly, they blamed the now-gone town manager for the mess. Nevertheless, when there was a special town meeting to decide the issue, it is no secret that many of the sitting board helped find the necessary votes to pass the project over the protest of the business community.
As some on the Great Barrington Board of Selectmen remind me, I warned them early and often not to cede too much power to the town manager, who was impressive in his grasp of issues but who needed more early supervision than he got. That was a mistake I hope they won't forget. There's an old political science principle stating that when there are several people on a city council or board of selectmen, power tends to gravitate to a single individual. That's why it's very important to have a nice balance between new faces and some older ones. In my town, that sagacious person is Steve Bannon, the former scion of Bill's Pharmacy. While you don't always want the same old men sitting on a board picking the fleas out of their beards, there is something to be said for continuity. I mean, on-the-job training is fine but sometimes you have a situation of the clueless leading the clueless.
We need to wake up and smell the coffee. It doesn't take long before those who have acquired power, no matter where in the world they are, begin to resent those who might have other ideas. Some of the old salts on some of our boards may not have fancy Yale degrees but they know what's what and whether we really need a new police cruiser or dump truck. That's why I love town meetings when someone stands up and laces into the town fathers and mothers who are just going along with their supreme leader. Every time someone runs for finance committee or selectmen, we are told that they will keep an eye on things. All too often, however, they do not.
Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY Albany.