Speaking one's mind at town meeting a sacred freedom
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, May 3, 2012

The "Four Freedoms" prints, including the town-meeting scene that illuminates his "Freedom of Speech," are hanging on my wall in a framed celebration of the Norman Rockwell Centennial.

I once surprised my mother with a visit to his museum in Stockbridge a happy mother-daughter memory.

Rockwell wrote that he got the idea for his painting when he recalled a local man standing up at town meeting and saying something that everyone else disagreed with.

"But they let him have his say," the artist noted. "No one had shouted him down."

True, I've seen citizens booed and hissed, but not shouted down; moderators don't allow shout-downs.

I've never been one of those people that "everyone else disagreed with." Take Monday night at Marblehead Town Meeting: Nine people voted with me against the first proposed Proposition 2 override a debt exclusion for updating the town drainage system while only 576 people voted for it.

Yes, we all know that the town must fix the drains so that streets don't flood during storms. I, however, am tired of playing the government infrastructure game, at both the state and local levels.

The game begins with an understanding that one of the primary reasons we have government is for infrastructure, which individuals cannot build and maintain by themselves. Then the government fully funds everything except the infrastructure, allowing roads and bridges to crumble and drains to overflow, secure in the knowledge that when problems get bad enough, citizens will cough up whatever is needed to fix them on top of what they already pay for other functions of government, some nonessential.

During my Norman Rockwell, free-speech moment, I recalled a former town engineer presenting an ongoing drain project that was supposed to address the various town flooding problems. I'd thought that this settled things, yet have seen with astonishment over the ensuing years photos of streets flooded, people wading hip-deep and cars floating when there's a major rainstorm.

Incredibly, in response to my "What happened to the plan?" query, someone responded that "in the '80s the drainage department was eliminated when there were fiscal problems." What?! And during the booming '90s, it wasn't put back to work?

Guess keeping the town above water has become a priority again this year. Hence the request for a $5 million override.

Coincidentally, this is roughly the amount that the town spent without proper authorization on the recent Village School repair project, after the school was allowed to deteriorate because nobody prioritized maintenance.

Though the approved project was to fix the boilers, money was spent for other nonessential items that were ruled outside the scope and not subject to state funding assistance. Just think, we could have paid for town drains instead of school landscaping, matching doors and a new flagpole.

Moving right along to the other important reason we have government public safety and the new ladder/pumper truck for the Fire Department.

When I think about funding essential services, firemen come immediately to mind, along with the firetrucks they ride in on. I recall an equipment replacement project that began when I was on the Finance Committee in 1978 to '81. Town departments were to work with us on a replacement schedule for all vehicles, so the expense could be anticipated and budgeted.

The proposal at Town Meeting included the phrase, "we are working to place our fleet on a replacement schedule." Great idea, just like the old one.

Once again, I asked, "What happened to the long-ago plan?" The town manager responded inadequately, but one doesn't get to argue. So, there goes another $1.1 million on the ballot.

Could have bought a firetruck with what was wasted on Village School. Too bad the selectmen weren't setting priorities.

The third override is for what taxpayer activists call "an over and over and override." Town Meeting keeps placing a proposal for improvements to the Old Town House on the ballot, where the voters defeat it while approving other items they consider more important. This time I ask, "What part of 'no' doesn't Town Meeting understand?"

I recall one year when the architects' plan had an elevator on the outside of the circa-1727 building; lots of mixed opposition to that one. Now the proposed elevator is inside, too tiny to quickly evacuate the handicapped tourists selectmen hope will ride it to the third floor.

Maybe we have to do the drains, and buy the firetruck; we don't have to make this little building inadequately handicapped-accessible so we can use it for things like art exhibits, meetings and voting, that have moved on to other, easily accessible venues.

The fourth override shows what the Prop. 2 override provision was designed for the unanticipated expense. Marblehead and Salem want to jointly purchase open space on Salem Harbor that has suddenly come on the market. Because I'm thankful that Marblehead has not accepted the state's tax-eating, often abused Community Preservation Act, I'm voting for this $1.5 million to acquire open space.

Look, Mother! I'm writing this column about Marblehead Town Meeting ... I could be in another Norman Rockwell painting, celebrating freedom of the press.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette.

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