Divide and conquer


I heard this story 25 or 30 years ago, when the Island chiefs of police would gather once a month or so over coffee or sandwiches to talk shop and share information. At one winter meeting, the conversation turned to a rash of break-ins and burglaries from the shuttered homes of summer people.

One chief asked another, “What do you have on this?” — and they went around the table, each briefly laying out the evidence his officers had gathered.

At some point in this conversation there came a silence. (I like to imagine it as a sheepish silence, but I wasn’t there, and I’m not sure police chiefs can even do sheepish.) The Island chiefs realized that the puzzle pieces they’d just shared made a complete picture. They had solved the case over coffee. Arrests were made, and the string of burglaries was over.

This story has become a touchstone in my thinking about regionalism — also known as the R word — and all the controversy that attends it here on Martha’s Vineyard. Another touchstone for me is the memory of a drive across Minnesota and Iowa to visit family there.

When you’re driving across the Midwest, a town is an event. The miles of feed corn are punctuated by speed warnings and signposts at the town limits — Cannon Falls, Zumbrota, Chatfield, Preston (you might miss Preston if you’re adjusting your radio at the time). But for most of the miles, you’re not in any town at all. As Kevin Costner said in “Field of Dreams”: “This is Iowa.”

There are places on Martha’s Vineyard where you can play a sort of municipal Twister and touch three towns at once. But there’s nowhere you can be, in all of Massachusetts, that’s just plain Massachusetts: Every inch of our state belongs to one incorporated town or another. This arrangement, unique to New England, profoundly shapes the way we see our Island.

If you want to be a successful problem on Martha’s Vineyard, like that burglar of thirty years ago, your best strategy is to be no respecter at all of town boundaries. Because once you begin to cross jurisdictions, Islanders will have all sorts of difficulties making you go away. They might worry about you, the problem, but chances are good they’ll worry more about getting the short end of any regional deal and about being told what to do by someone from outside of town.

Say, for example, that the problem you want to be is water pollution, and your choices for where to plant yourself are the Edgartown Great Pond or the Lagoon. Which should you choose for a long and happy career?

If you chose the Great Pond, your future doesn’t look good. Because Edgartown Great Pond lies entirely in Edgartown (hence the name, and all that). More importantly, the watershed which feeds pollutants into the pond also lies in Edgartown. And best of all, the Island’s biggest municipal wastewater treatment plant sits conveniently nearby, ready to collect the sewage and clean it. Thanks to the initiatives voted by Edgartown citizens at town meeting this April, pollution in Edgartown Great Pond is basically doomed.

If you chose the Lagoon as your place to be the problem, you can hope for a longer, happier life. Because Oak Bluffs on one side and Tisbury on the other both contribute pollution to the pond, and mitigating that pollution will be a costly effort that will require cooperation between them. Hey, you could be around for years.

Regionalism is a funny issue here on the Vineyard — people have strong sentiments on the subject, but you don’t hear many intelligent conversations about it. That’s partly because regionalism, even when it’s a good idea, can be done badly, and this gives the word a bad name.

Bad regionalism, I’d suggest, is what happens when we forget that the further we sit from where services are actually delivered and where work actually gets done — the further we are from where the proverbial rubber meets the road — the less useful our contributions are apt to be.

Good regionalism happens when the decisions are local, but the information doesn’t stop at town lines. When an Oak Bluffs board learns from a mistake made by its counterpart in Edgartown, or when West Tisbury steals a great idea from Vineyard Haven — that’s good regionalism.

Some of the most pressing problems on Martha’s Vineyard will not yield to anything less than cooperative effort from all the Island towns. Other problems lend themselves to single-town solutions, but even in these cases we don’t need to be reinventing the wheel, or repeating each other’s mistakes, nearly as often as we do.