Caution – Turbulence Abounds!
By Gregory T. Federspiel
The amount of turbulence around us feels greater than usual. There is plenty to point to – from the war in Ukraine, to a pandemic that can’t seem to end, from inflation and concerns of a pending recession to weather patterns that foreshadow bigger challenges ahead, from Supreme Court rulings that reverse what seemed like settled law to local concerns about dispatch, zoning and the 40B.
Manchester is not immune from this turmoil – indeed the angst many of us feel from global, national and local events can generate a sense of vulnerability and frustration that spills over into daily interactions. But as a small community Manchester is a place where residents have a significant amount of agency. Decision making is rooted in the long-standing tradition of the open town meeting where all registered voters can attend, share their opinion on a topic and vote.
However, not all decisions are made at a Town Meeting. The 5 members of the Select Board are charged with setting a wide variety of operational policies, proposing budgets and setting the warrant for Town Meetings, issuing licenses, and adjudicating certain questions (dog disputes, public tree decisions, etc.) The question of how to provide public safety dispatch is one of those operational choices vested in the Board.
As part of a long process of vetting which choice to make – keeping dispatch in-house or joining the regional center – the Board opted to put forth a non-binding ballot question. The outcome was a majority voted to keep dispatch in-house. This was an important data point but one of many. The Board made the difficult decision to not follow the outcome of the vote, a rare but not unprecedented move. The Select Board summarized its thinking at its last meeting – its fiduciary and public safety responsibilities formed the basis for deciding to move to the regional center despite the vote.
For those who voted to keep dispatch local, this was a very disappointing decision. Some have questioned why bother to vote if your vote does not matter. While an understandable reaction it overstates the situation. Non-binding votes take place very infrequently – the vast majority of votes are binding and, as our recent election shows, every vote most definitely counts. There was only a 2 vote difference for the winner of one of the contested positions.
My role as Town Administrator includes carry out the directives of the Board and to provide recommendations – sometimes followed, sometimes not - as the Board works through a myriad of issues. In this case, Board members placed a premium on obtaining the most comprehensive dispatching services available today to maximize public safety at the best cost to taxpayers. This is not the Board purposely disrespecting the will of the voters – they have a job to do and felt that in this unique case they needed to go against the popular straw vote to do what they believe is best for Manchester. This is what they are elected to do. Ultimately accountability comes around at election time.
There will always be disagreements over decisions made. Each of us comes at a problem with our own set of values and preferences. A good many residents believe that moving to the regional dispatch center means losing a piece of our small-town quality. This is a valid concern. Those who place a higher value on a premium dispatch service for the lowest cost also have a valid viewpoint. A majority of the Select Board are in the latter camp and have the responsibility for making the decision.
I have worked for local government for over 30 years. Governing is not always smooth - there are many players, lots of opinions, and often times cumbersome rules that must be followed. There have been times where I wished that I could be the benevolent dictator! But I remain committed to small town governance, marveling at the love of community residents demonstrate, the wisdom they can impart, and the willingness many have to selflessly volunteer to serve on boards and committees. Yes, there is turbulence all around us; yes, there will be differences of opinions – often strongly felt; and yes, the process can get messy at times. But the foundation is strong, people’s intentions are good, and important decisions are getting made.