A civic twofer

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Vineyarders are facing very large and complex choices regarding the future of Island life. Either proactively or reactively, the decisions we will make and the ones we punt on will put a stamp on Island life for many years to come. Our thinking and debating/arguing pipeline runneth over. 

There is housing of course, and land use and conservation, zoning, coastal erosion, water quality, tax and service regionalization, Steamship Authority management, healthcare, missing guns, and governance and management across all Island towns and regional bodies. At a somewhat lower altitude there are the bungles: giving up millions in state funding for school construction projects, setting the Guinness standard for time spent arguing about a single issue (the high school playing field surface, surpassing even the rotary debate), and installing a Thneed (this is a test, dear reader) of a parking design in downtown Oak Bluffs that many of the ignored residents can’t abide (wait until they actually start using it). 

These are all in our pipeline and beg for our attention, almost always at the same time. The solutions and compromises to emerge will combine to characterize life on Martha’s Vineyard for years to come, for these are all issues with very long tails. How well they are resolved is pretty much solely on us. And therein lies the challenge.

We understand that we are not good at delegating, neither to boards and committees nor to their paid staff. So in crafting our unique M.V. civic algorithm, we’ll need Island-lovers in full force: disciplined thinkers and some out-of-the-box types, we’ll need a range of skills and life experiences, we would benefit from volunteers with experience off the Island (yes, really), and most of all we’ll need good listeners (rare in our land of quick thinkers). In sum, we’ll need a small army of Vineyarders to do the disciplined, sometimes plodding, work, because the agenda is long and the schedule is relentless.

Which is where our great challenge lies: We simply can’t attract enough recruits for our army of good thinkers. We urge your participation each year, as do the overworked volunteers who have heroically shown up. But many Islanders are understandably busy, work two or even three jobs, need family time, have demanding hobbies, travel part of the year — all understandable. We accept all that. But still, the problem persists. So, a modest proposal. Since we have a vital need for citizen participation and too limited a pool of year-rounders to meet the need, let’s expand the pool by extending eligibility to less-than-year-round residents.

These are talented and experienced neighbors who love the Vineyard as we do or maybe even more, they pay a fortune in taxes just like the rest of us, they are very generous of time and treasure to Island causes and nonprofits. They might even push the margins of our own self-referential worldview a bit. 

If these neighbors choose to be off-Island for extended parts of the year, it isn’t any of our business, and it doesn’t diminish their legitimate stake in Island decisionmaking. On the practical side, they would bring a breadth of obvious strengths, and would expand our capacity for intelligent governance. On the healthy community side, we could put inclusivity and shared responsibility into practice. And just maybe we can get past the tired trope of a “real Islander” (remembers stuff you don’t know) versus an “invader” (visitor using up our precious resources).

We can attract the good brains and leadership our civic gene pool needs by sharing voting membership at the intersection of planning, policy, and strong governance. Let’s work hard to attract our seasonal neighbors to join our committees, boards, and task forces as voting members, and share their experience and knowledge. And for heaven’s sake, let’s invite them to town meetings (although without vote). In this Zoom era, it is not a stretch at all. The newly enfranchised shouldn’t be let off the hook, and if they do a bad job in Vineyard civic engagement, we can fire them.

Islanders have a chance to turn an important challenge into an opportunity. Let’s take advantage of the moment by expanding our civic workforce and broadening our civic base by sharing decisions about the Island’s destiny with more of the community.

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