Salmon river ny
Photo: Anythony Vinciguerra

Evening meetings

Government governs whether we show up or not

My fly tying desk is a mess. I recently painted my home office and that required a reshuffling of furniture and all the oddball things that one acquires in a well-lived life. There’s a desk in the corner where my fly tying stuff lives and even when it’s well organized it can never be described as orderly. In past winters, I’ve been able to slide over there after dinner and tie the handful of patterns that I’ve come to rely upon. I’ve been meaning to get that desk back in the game, I just haven’t gotten around to it. I’ve got lots of excuses, but one reason is evening meetings.

Small town government largely functions due to the dedication of volunteers who sit on the various commissions. The commissioners are usually pillar-of-the-community types and hold steady, daytime jobs and thus the meetings are in the evenings. 7 p.m. seems a popular time. I attend these meetings rarely. When I do, it’s usually because some idiot has proposed something foolish and I fear that without my voice of reason at the table the beleaguered council members will be badgered by lawyers and taxpayers to do something awful. Sometimes I feel like I’ve made an impact. Many times it feels like I’m talking into the void. Regardless, I go when necessary.

For years, a local truant who owns a construction company has been using residential land for commercial purposes. He runs heavy machinery at all hours. He’s filled in wetlands, buried a small stream, and generally made an eyesore. Nearby residential landowners have complained. While he has been cited for violations of town ordinances, he persists in his activities, apparently embracing the “Live Free or Die” motto of the recalcitrant state of New Hampshire.

I was asked to attend a council meeting in a nearby town to provide testimony on the quality of the river that borders the construction guy’s land. Rather than remedy the violations that have been levied, he has petitioned the town to change the zoning of the property so that his non-conforming activities now conform. It’s not a novel legal strategy, but I do admire his canny approach to the corner into which he’s backed himself.

At the meeting were the usual cast of characters. I don’t know the commissioners and town agents well, but when we’re in these halls we recognize each other with warm handshakes and the “it’s been too long” pablum. This civility is neither political correctness nor theater. It’s the foundation that allows us to work together, agree and disagree, sometimes battle, yet still get back into the room at the next turn of events without a chip on our shoulders. It’s the hard work of governing. It requires a thick skin, a healthy dose of empathy, and the ability to use your ears more than your mouth.

Also in the room are two older couples. They own land adjacent to the construction guy. Like the construction guy, they’ve been on the land for generations. I read my letter which is fact-based and corporate in tone. I like to think facts have a place in the discussion. I’m pleasantly surprised when the neighbors get up to speak and also follow the fact-based approach. They have a stack of photos that illustrate the non-conforming use, the threat to the neighborhood and proximity of the activity to the river. While no decision is made by this board, the final meeting is in a few weeks, the commissioners are clearly swayed.

I don’t know how this will play out though I suspect that the construction guy is going to be unhappy. That said, I’ve seen it go the other way too. What is encouraging is the engagement of everyday people. Yes, they clearly have a self-interest here. But I sometimes forget about the power of the individual. Representing an organization with skin in the game, I often pay attention to the professionals in the room, the lawyers and the engineers. That’s probably because the commissioners also have this bias. The “experts” are supposed to provide expert guidance, right? But it was clearly the everyday person who held the attention at that particular evening meeting.

Government is imperfect. Influence is peddled in soft and hard ways. Uncomfortable compromise is required. Many times I’ve walked into testify on a topic knowing I held a losing hand, but I went anyway. On a cold winter evening, I’d rather be at my tying desk. But I also know that government governs whether we show up or not. There will be other nights for restocking the boxes. Show up.

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