Governance at the Smallest Scale

I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life, and I’m still in close contact with… I don’t know, way less than a dozen of all the hundreds and hundreds of people I’ve worked with, as co-workers and clients and professional colleagues. When you leave most jobs, you almost never run into the people you used to work with. For the most part, that’s okay.

When you’re on the city council of a major city, you meet people all the time at meetings and public events who want to talk with you—pleasantly, or less so—about your official duties. But you can usually mow your lawn or go to the grocery store without comment.

But for the past five and a half years, I’ve been on the Selectboard of a community of about 700 people. Every one of my neighbors knows who I am, and a lot of them are pretty open about their opinions. So every trip to the local general store, the post office, and the transfer station is another opportunity to hear what we have and haven’t done right.

And every fellow employee whom we have to work with or supervise or counsel lives here in town. We don’t get to walk away from our ongoing contact when one or another of us changes roles. And so those roles become blended. I am simultaneously a board member and a neighbor and the guy who isn’t taking care of their road. I am simultaneously a colleague and a friend and an interloper from away. I am simultaneously the person who supports our non-profits and bake sales and potlucks, and the person who’s responsible for setting our tax rates and reviewing property assessments and asking them to clear some of the junk from the public face of their yard.

I had a neighbor stop the car and come up into the yard while I was cleaning the porch on Saturday to tell me that I was sugarcoating the state of our roads. (His language was somewhat other than that.) When I told him that the section of road he was most concerned about is actually scheduled to be rebuilt next month, he wanted to know why we hadn’t done it last spring.

I get complaints about roads and unkempt properties that aren’t even in our town. I get complaints about state policies, and about disputed property boundaries between two taxpayers. I get complaints about board decisions that were made years before I moved to town, and about other non-profit organizations that don’t answer to the board at all.

And…

And I’m pumping gas, and the neighbor filling the truck in front of me says thank you for the communication work I do to let people know about road construction and storm conditions.

And one of my colleagues says at a meeting that the Town’s dragged its feet for fifteen years, and appreciates how far I’ve been able to move a project in just four months.

And one of my friends says that he’s grateful that I’m on the board, because he knows that he doesn’t have the temperament to hear it all.

And one of my friends stops me at the post office, and says their driveway is washing out (a private driveway), and is there anything we can do to help? And then sends an e-mail of thanks when I put together a local and State review visit to their property.

The work of government at the very smallest scale isn’t mediated by staff or by distance. We interact as volunteers all day long with innumerable people who are actually paid to do their jobs, with state agencies and insurance companies and backhoe mechanics and waste haulers, and we take responsibility for all of it. And all of the praise and criticism alike are close at hand.

So my request today is: no matter what size community you live in, no matter what state you live in, drop a line of thanks to one of your elected officials about something you’ve noticed and appreciated. It means the world.