The Politics of Change: Small Town Edition

Occasionally, I will post on Fridays. When I do, I may stray from discussions of improving the quality of public education. Today I share some thoughts on small town democracy. Someday I may talk about comedy podcasts (a favorite escape) or what it's like to work as a root vegetable vendor at a winter farmers market (something my wife and I do every year). You'll be in charge of telling me whether this is entertaining or self-indulgent or both!

The town I live in governs itself through direct democracy. Already, you should be thinking, “Wow, that’s crazy.” And you’re right! But the complexity of this is further heightened by the fact that, while the town is a blue-collar fishing community between September and April, from Memorial Day to Labor day the population doubles to accommodate summer vacation rentals at our unusually sandy (i.e. not rocky) New England beach. While several thousand people live here year round, and all residents are eligible participants, only the most civically dedicated few hundred make the annual pilgrimage to the high school auditorium for “Town Meeting” each May, during which all of the town’s important business is decided. (I tweeted about this last year and promise to do the same this year under #hulltownmtg.)

  Fiat was surprisingly superior to pickup truck in the snow ... Photo Credit: me

Fiat was surprisingly superior to pickup truck in the snow ... Photo Credit: me

If you study politics you might guess correctly that the crowd at Town Meeting contains a disproportionate share of the town’s older resident. Despite a few stray grey hairs in my beard, I’m still one of the “young people” in town. It doesn’t help that I also moved here from the dreaded “other town,” which is literally any place that isn’t this town. Before this year’s Town Meeting, in between Sisyphean bouts of moving snow from one enormous pile to another, my wife, our friends, and I have been searching for issues that might unite the younger townsfolk in a way that doesn’t have an equal and opposite effect on the residents with more seniority.

“Dogs should be allowed on the beach before seven o’clock in the morning,” Mary suggested.  Currently, dogs are banned on the beach during the high population months. Nobody is happy with this arrangement.

“Yes, but I like to run at six o’clock,” said Brad, “and there is a guy who walks his two dobermans on C Street at about the same time, and he does not use a leash.”

Mary turns red and responds, “I walk Randy every morning, and I should not have to worry about having him on a leash on the beach. It’s the one place I shouldn’t have to do that. That’s my right.” (At this point I should mention that I have changed the name of all the humans and dogs in this story.)

“The last time they ran up to me, off leash mind you, I got in that guy’s face and said, ‘Hey, keep those f-ing dogs away from me,’” said Brad, his temperature rising.

  Beautiful Nantasket Beach ... Photo Credit: me

Beautiful Nantasket Beach ... Photo Credit: me

I then began dreading Town Meeting. The youngsters: once united in a desire to improve their adopted home, driven apart by the emotionally charged issue of whether or not, during certain hours of the day, during particular months of the year, there should or should not be dogs on the beach.

Quality of life issues are important, but it’s hard to find room for negotiating when you’re red in the face, unable to take your morning walk without feeling safe or free. There is no consensus in fear. Not to mention that it’s already hard to make an argument for “improvement” when you’re the new people in town and the incumbents feel like you’re constantly telling them what they’ve been doing wrong all along. As a good friend told me before I moved here, "Make sure to keep that vision crap to yourself for a while."

What does that mean for town meeting this year? Or for the politics of change more broadly? I have three simple rules I’m going to follow:

1)   Try not to take anything that someone already has.

  Could this BE any more archetypically New England? ... Photo credit: me

Could this BE any more archetypically New England? ... Photo credit: me

2)   Don’t underestimate the fear of change, no matter how small.

3)   Don’t let the fear of change obscure the inevitability and necessity of progress.

Please steal these rules, if you like.