Editorial : How's the table set?
Spring, no matter how the calendar accounts for it, distributes its blessed signals quietly, even obscurely. You need a keen and watchful eye, as well as a questing heart, to see the accumulating news that winter's lost its mojo and better, warmer, brighter days are in store. We tend to direct our yearning at the hints appearing among the flora and fauna, but that's a mistake. Humankind also signals spring in its own endearing ways, and discovering these signals can, for instance, turn an early morning drive to work along Middle Road, on a gray, damp, and drear Wednesday, into a heartening experience. For instance, yesterday, a young woman, waiting by herself at the end of her road for the school bus, earbuds in her ears, iPod in hand and eyes closed, danced a jig. That's the old-fashioned word for the wild, ankle turning, head wagging, arm waving steps she danced. It may have been the hokey pokey or the mashed potato or the chicken or hip hop or disco, but it was an unmistakably delighted expression of spring spirit.
Of course, the other thing humans do in spring, at least here, is assemble in annual town meetings. The delight at the prospect of several long evenings deciding spending and other questions may be missing, but voters can be certain that when the dreary work is done, over the course of a couple of months, it will absolutely be spring. But, voters have plenty of pre-meeting thinking to do, and among the questions they should decide is: How have our elected officials set this table for me? Examining the work of the selectmen, the chief executives of the town, voters ought to look for signs of leadership. Budget discipline has been at the top of town agendas this year. Decisions that pare town spending to its absolute and indispensable core require that chief executives make decisions and then defend them.
In his letter this morning, John Boardman discusses the very different roles of the chief executives and other municipal officials and the voters gathered in town meeting. To do their work well, voters need their executives to do well. Commenting on the work of his town's chief executives, Mr. Boardman of Oak Bluffs writes, "I think the voters deserve better than this. They deserve a balanced budget to be prepared, agreed to and presented at town meeting. Bickering over details, individual salaries and inter-departmental trade-offs becomes emotional, unattractive, and needlessly time consuming at town meetings. Now is the time for the selectmen to do their jobs."
We agree, and after town meetings, when voters go to the polls to consider election choices, there is no better standard to use than an evaluation of the way in which the town meeting agenda has been prepared for voters.
What criteria should voters use? Selectmen, although elected separately, must work together. They must resolve the issues that separate them, so that voters see clearly the choices with which they are presented. This does not mean that all the selectmen must agree, but it does mean that voters must be made to understand what the board's choice is and what the rejected alternatives were, and why they were rejected.
With especially difficult issues, wet or dry in Tisbury for example, selectmen need to do more than merely allow voters to fight it out. Selectmen have an obligation to define their positions on such subjects and to enhance the voter's understanding of the choice with clear descriptions of the way in which such an approval will be implemented.
So, to their difficult work of deciding town meeting questions, voters must add the crucial work of evaluating the performance of their executives, who have prepared the agenda that confronts them. Does it reflect decisions and reasoning that may be fairly expected of executives, or does it instead shift leadership obligations to voters who are poorly equipped to do executive work, and who must make their choices in a setting hostile to cool reason? Spring, whatever else it promises, demands these choices from voters, at town meetings and at the polling places. Then, thankfully, it's on to summer.