In 2016 we Americans outsourced our presidential election to two inept and heedless national parties, abetted by the Russian government and Wikileaks and the unexpected ravages of social media. In our carelessness we sentenced ourselves to four years of soul-crushing, dangerous, cynical politics and governance.
Among the many axes of venality along which we can dissect our current political state is the fear-mongering of scarcity and the simple-mindedness of the binary yes/no, we/they choices which drive our politics in the Trump/Republican era. In this environment of scarcity driving our politics it’s us or them, it’s zero sum, it’s all or nothing. No wonder we can’t find compromise, we can’t put ourselves in each other’s shoes. No wonder the only statesmanship on display comes from politicians leaving office.
Here on Martha’s Vineyard we feel immune. We are, after all, a relatively privileged Island community, we are culturally homogeneous, we famously care for each other, we revel in our iconic town meeting system of local governance, and we do our public business largely through citizen volunteers. If there is self-interest or self-dealing it is, we imagine, only of the community-minded sort.
We have our own serious challenges and choices to make, though, and inertia stemming from paralyzing binary one-issue thinking means we will lose time and opportunity, and we will — by commission and omission — erode the community values we want to define ourselves by. As town meeting season and town elections come in sight following on the heels of bleak winter, here are a few important challenges we hope get the attention they deserve among our neighbors, on the town warrants, and from candidates. By all means, add to the list: Let us know what’s on your mind.
Housing (for homes for Islanders or against development): Except for those who truly see the Vineyard’s future as a moated community, housing non-residents and a dwindling number of local servants and pensioners, there should be no disagreement that the Island has too few housing units of all types and costs available to underpin the entire year-round community. What is lacking to solve the problem is political will and leadership, expressed through land use planning and zoning provisions.
There are technical challenges (notably wastewater treatment) and NIMBY neighbors with narrow interests, but the broad negative mindset toward housing development as part of a healthy community was cast in the 1970s and 1980s, when the original conservation battles were fought and large lot zoning, the MV Commission, and the MV Land Bank were created. Fears of unregulated development spoiling the Vineyard were understandable then, when housing supply and demand were in relative balance and development seemed poised to overwhelm the Island. But the population has grown three-fold since then, and the over-development we fear should have some context: density on Martha’s Vineyard of around 160 people per square mile compares to that exemplar of density and egalitarianism, Nantucket — at 200 souls per square mile. We know there are challenges, but we need to compromise. Adequate housing is not about yes or no — it’s about finding the best ways to stop talking and get it done.
Regional services (for effectiveness or for local tradition): Along with housing, a number of vital community services are controlled on a town-by-town basis. This plays to our self-image of rugged New England independence, but in many cases comes at a high price in dollars and quality.
Simply mentioning regionalization is a high-risk prospect for selectmen across the Island, but the list of possible candidates is long and impressive for its potential to improve the quality of life for year-round and seasonal residents. First responder services — police, fire, and EMT — perform heroically now, but couldn’t we look at facility, training, and staffing benefits in a best-world (and not a politically bound) fashion?
There are also emergency communications and disaster preparedness considerations which obviously require regional solutions but, despite occasional pleas from the public, remain mired in political indifference.
There’s a lot riding on these largely volunteer services and they deserve our best thinking. That we don’t get it done means that we aren’t able to walk and chew gum — attend to local preferences while supporting needed efficiencies — at the same time.
Institutional accountability (for privacy or for public ownership): The Island benefits from a wide range of institutional services provided by private, not-for-profit organizations, and in turn from the philanthropic support they (and indirectly, we) depend on. Though tax-exempt, these organizations are not publicly owned; they plan and provide services and facilities by their own private lights, and their boards and their executives are largely self-perpetuating.
It is foolish to expect that institutional and community needs will always be in lock step, and in a larger, more diverse community institutional prerogatives are constrained by choice and competition; if I don’t like school A or doctor B I can go next door at no great inconvenience. Even shops and services on the Vineyard are subject to competitive differentiation.
But large, monopoly non-profits on the Vineyard are not subject to much competition, and their ownership can keep them completely opaque and indifferent to public opinion. Too often what the community hears is “because we said so.” A network of local monopolies is efficient but it needs to pay for its monopoly status by being completely open and accountable as it makes critical decisions, and not as patronizing after-the-fact pleas for “input.”
Goal-oriented local government (for accommodating change or for nostalgia and privacy): The Island is home to six separate towns, a county and a very powerful regional planning agency, each conducting at least a slice of local governance. Technical staff are salaried and selectmen and commissioners are volunteers. These are earnest neighbors, devoting enormous amounts of time to the community.
But they are almost always elected without real platforms and goals, by relatively few registered voters, to work with warrants which are rarely forward-looking and passed by even fewer registered voters. Inertia, the resistance to necessary change, too frequently becomes the organizing principle for town government. But to be healthy, to be caring and inclusive, communities need to change, and on Martha’s Vineyard the key to enabling change versus stifling and unresponsive inertia lies with elected and appointed local officials. New candidates and committee members, better civics education and preparation, organized debate and discussion about key town policies, and commitments to measurable progress are what we need, and not just business as usual.