A New Year’s Resolution
I moved to Seekonk almost 10 years ago (into the Westcoat house)-not sure if I would start a family, how long I’d stay, or what overall my life had in store for me. One of my first acts was to go to a water board meeting. I was so new that they didn’t have me on the printed voter roll. After proving that I had registered and my address-I was able to attend and vote. The largest disagreement we had was about how much the water superintendent should be paid. While the number seemed like a lot of money, the board was prepared to defend it based on the certifications he had and a review of other town’s salaries. We had our debate, we voted, and went on with our lives. I felt secure that at least it seemed like our democracy was working. That theme continued as year over year I attended town meeting and as with many of us I was too busy to dig into all of the details. Overall, it appeared like our officials were genuinely working for our town’s best interests.
10 years later my first child is in kindergarten so my wife and I started attending school committee meetings. As I dug in further I began to realize that while everything seemed ok at the surface, the base of our democracy was crumbling. After the quad board meeting and finding out that the capital improvement committee hasn’t had enough people to achieve a quorum for years; I decided to dig into the capital projects that might be coming. I started with meeting minutes from a couple of committees that were fully staffed, but I was amazed by how many meetings were canceled. Going back to November of 2022 (assuming the most recent meetings happened) the human services council achieved a quorum for 7 of 9 meetings, at 78% that’s a gentleman’s C grade. I’m not sure if it’s par for the course in town government, but if any of my direct reports showed up to work 78% of the time they’d be on the quick track to termination. In comparison the Parks and Rec committee met for 6 out of 11 meetings. At 55% it makes you wonder if it’s enough to keep the lights on (up to date bylaws, policies, etc… which might explain why those aren’t available online for that committee) nevermind provide for good debate, sound guidance for town employees, and feedback to other committees.
For me the keystone of local government is that it is closest to its citizens. This isn’t the US capital; we should be able to have a conversation as citizens and reasonably relate to what other people’s concerns are. The lack of this was highlighted in my mind by the zoning board of appeals meetings. On December 21st a zoning board of appeals meeting was continued to January 8th due to the lack of 4 critical attendees (despite the developer and several townspeople attending and being prepared). It was continued without taking concerns from citizens or discussion on if the 4 critical attendees could make the next meeting. When I later was discussing my concerns with the conservation secretary she mentioned that a conservation committee meeting was also occurring on the same date/time. Is one committee going to move its meeting to accommodate or are we going to have another continuance and lose yet another opportunity to voice our concerns and debate? This makes me question-are the town committees even capable of listening and taking our concerns seriously?
In my experience a bad system will beat the best people every time. It might not happen overnight, but it will happen as good people get worn out from constantly fighting an uphill battle. There are currently 7 committees in town that have 2 or more openings and a significant number of elected board (School, Select, etc.) policies that haven’t been revised/reviewed since the time of the floppy disk. As the population has expanded in town (households up by 25% from 2010 to 2020 according to the town’s master plan) it has put stress on existing systems (school, water, roads, etc.) to the point where we need to be able to have a serious conversation about what we prioritize. Can we do that if we don’t have staffed committees? Can we realistically bring new people on to staff those committees and expect them to perform without up to date/written policies? It leaves most of us waiting for a hero that can magically fix it. I hate to break it, but (insert your presidential candidate) isn’t going to save Seekonk. Thankfully we already have a roadmap. In a more chaotic time between wars on our soil-our founding fathers held a different idea-that we the people together hold the power to fix it; show up, listen, be prepared, admit our mistakes, and improve. The zoning board of appeals has a chance to do so in their next meeting on January 8th (at 6 pm at the senior center)-and for all of our sake I hope they do.
Unfortunately, one good meeting isn’t going to fix this-so I ask the people of Seekonk; join me in a new year’s resolution (and in fixing my own mistake of waiting too long to get involved)-help our democracy. It’s easy to get pissed off and post online where people are just a face and a name vs the neighbor you share this town with. Try something different-go regularly to a meeting (usually once a month) even if it’s just to listen. Learn the Robert’s Rules of Order/Open meeting law and when you feel comfortable start asking questions/speaking-an official can ignore you online (especially an appointed/hired one), but it’s much harder when you’re right in front of them. When you really feel comfortable, find a friend/neighbor and join a committee-if for no other reason than to have help with the work or to mitigate your weaknesses. I’ll admit it’s intimidating at first, but if we can get our democracy to where we can have a conversation about what our neighbors are actually dealing with and put that into practice-that’s a win. There’s only so long we can work with a broken system and the future of this town needs your help. I can’t fix the border, war, social security, or healthcare costs, but I can help to fix Seekonk-and you know what; so can you.
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