Things that just occurred to me, in no particular order

Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

Sausage

Let’s say you own a plot of land. Your neighbor dies and his heirs sell to a local developer.

Now that guy’s bringing a plan forward to turn the land on the other side of your fence into something. Could be a factory or a church or a chicken farm. It doesn’t matter what because it’s going to change your life drastically.

Of course, this local developer knows the process. He knows what forms to fill out and where to sign and what boards he needs to meet with before he can get started. So, it’s no surprise that this guy is halfway to breaking ground before you realize what’s on his mind.

From your perspective, it looks a lot like he getting a special deal and you raise holy hell. A few other neighbors do, too. You write a few letters, meet with a few local officials yourself and do what you can to unravel all that he’s done.

And suddenly, people start to pay attention and what looked like a slam dunk for this guy starts looking much less likely.

Now, from your point of view, it looks like a conspiracy. He greased all the right palms and settled the deal before you knew what happened. The officials must be on his side. “What happened to the public process?” you cry.

The thing is, it looks a lot like a conspiracy from his point of view, too. He’s invested a lot of money and done a lot of work to get to this point. And now, when there’s no turning back, it all starts to look different. It was anything but easy getting to this point, he says, but his  sure thing ain’t so sure anymore. Maybe some people stop returning his calls.  The officials must be on your side, he thinks.

About the only thing both would agree on is that is that something fishy is afoot. And they’d both be right.

It’s the way government works, top to bottom. Nobody is rewarded for doing their work early. Nothing is settled until the last vote is cast and counted and things can change on a dime. I’d gather it was that way in Ancient Greece, with some last-minute Athenian wheeling and dealing. And I guarantee it was that way back in the late 1700s when our Founding Fathers made their deals.

Keep that in mind this week when there’s a debt deal nationally or a zoning deal next door. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s just government.

At some point, we have to get around to fixing things

So last November, the country took a turn to the left. We elected a Democrat president and gave him a whisker-thin majority in Congress. This came after years of letting the GOP run the table and on top of a huge financial meltdown.

I hoped we’d all be able to turn a page, you know, put aside all of our partisan differences. Make things happen for a change: heal the economy, fix the planet, build up our image around the globe and similar stuff. Only an idiot would expect quick fixes, thought I. It took a while to get here, it’ll take a while to get someplace else.

Boy was I wrong. The criticism started right away, giving birth to the Tea Party and a brand new partisan game. And here we are, 2010 looks a lot like 1994 — and pretty much every year in between.

But now, I’m curious about the GOP back-pedaling away from some of the Tea Party’s big winners just as the movement appears ready to bear fruit. It doesn’t bode well for us, I’m afraid.

See, the folks that elected Obama have gotten complacent. They’ve let the “Somewhere in Texas, a Village is Missing its Idiot” bumper stickers get all faded and peely and gotten along with their lives.

Meanwhile, the Tea Party crowd is all energized, ready to get their crew elected. This fall, when they do, they’ll divide Congress up evenly and make sure nothing gets done for the following two years.

Then, in 2012, we’ll have another narrow election. Either side could win. The winner’s supporters will get all fat and complacent. The losers will put brand new bumper stickers on their cars and make sure that nothing gets accomplished.

But at some point, we have to put the bickering aside and give someone the chance to fix things and the time to make it work.

Looking good — without all that fuss

It’s tough making difficult decisions.

Cities in Maine have been struggling this year ever since the economy and state government ate up a big hunk of their revenue. That has left the elected folks with some tough decisions. They had to choose higher property taxes — in a state with historically high property taxes to begin with — or they had to cut services that their constituents love and layoff decent, hardworking city staffers.

In the end, most Maine cities did a little of both. Taxes went up a bit and a few city staffers went home for the last time. The streets won’t get plowed as quickly next winter, some frills like fireworks are going away. It may take bit longer to answer phone calls or respond to complaints and some potholes will survive the summer paving season.

It was tough work  and many agonized over the process. They didn’t want to be the ones to raise taxes or to fire people just to balance the budget.

For some, the tax increases were too much and they couldn’t support that.  Others didn’t like that certain services were cut. They voted against the budget, too.

But most found a middle ground, as uncomfortable as it was. It’s called a compromise.

But not everyone’s up for a compromise. It’s tough and can be used against a politician.  Frequently, compromise pisses everyone off. People are mad that their taxes went up at all and their services are still getting cut. Nobody wins.

Invariably some folks get elected that refuse to compromise. They don’t have any ideas, they just argue against all of it. Don’ t raise taxes. Don’t cut this service, don’t cut that service. What service should we cut? I don’ t know, but not those.

Luckily, everyone else ignores them. The final vote comes and passes with just enough support. Despite not having contributed a thing or suggested a single way to improve the process, they take a principled stand against the compromise. Everyone should have tried harder, they say wringing the hands. It’s not enough or it’s too much.  No matter, they’re dead set against it.

The thing is, their votes never matter. If there was any chance the vote was going to be close enough for them to change things, there would have been no compromise. And if they felt their vote would actually change things and force more work, they’ll vote with the majority, but that’s a rare occurrence.

Where the vote would be otherwise unanimous, they always seem to be the sole dissenter, shrewdly wagging their fingers and clucking their tongues. They seem to a make a political career out of not doing anything but acting like they’ve made a difference. Pretending.

Which, it turns out, is much easier than making a difficult decision.

It’s called a telephone

I took a decent ration of crap Monday night from a couple of City Councilors for having information before they did.

Last week, I called up the Auburn City Manager and asked him how the budget cutting was going. He told me, and I wrote it down.

That’s it.

That made a couple of councilors angry because they had to read that update along with everyone else. The manager didn’t hang up the phone with me and immediately call the councilors to tell them what he said. Another missed the story in the paper, but complained because he had to hear about it a day later from a parent at one of his kid’s baseball games.

The thing is, the manager was just a being friendly, open to the public and answering simple questions. Government, at least local government, runs on this kind of thing.

He’d have been more than happy to give either of those councilors the same story if they’d ask. They didn’t, I did and they had to read about it along with the rest of the city.

Boo hoo.

The thing is, it matters. The next time I call the manager up and ask him a simple question he’s going to think twice before he answers. Maybe, he won’t answer at all — and the rest of the city won’t have that information.

Then, the councilors can sit around and talk about how they want to make government more open and accommodating to the public.

Signs don’t vote, but they work

Ballot issues, one in particular, had everyone’s attention Tuesday. Mainers didn’t turn out in record-setting droves like they did in last year’s presidential vote, but it as close. The vote on the marriage equality law really drew folks.  Big votes on excise taxes and a TABOR-like tax reform drew people, too.

I spent the day at the polls, talking to voters about why they voted the way they did. Everyone had an informed opinions on the same-sex marriage issue, whether they wanted to let gay people marry or not and on tax reform.

That has had me thinking.

The TABOR/Tax reform issue went down in a big way, and the people I spoke to had a simple pragmatic reason for turning it down.

It’s called representative government, they said. We elect leaders, councilors, selectmen and legislators, to do the hard work for us. They review the issues we don’t have time for, studying budgets and ordinances and coming up with decisions. As voters, if we don’t like their decisions, we just have to vote them out.

But TABOR would have short circuited that, replacing representative government with rule by initiative. For the Mainer’s I talked to, that would have been an unnecessary, potentially expensive, extra step.

That’s all there, on the video. What didn’t make the cut is the stuff that came first.

I started out asking them how they voted in the local races,  for  the Lewiston and Auburn’s mayor and City Council seats. Their answers were mostly uniform. None of them could recall how they voted for City Council, few had any memory of the mayoral races.  It didn’t matter which  city they were in, the local races didn’t register with them.  On the college campus, many didn’t even bother to fill out the city questions. They just left them blank. One guy in Auburn said he just picked names at random on the ballot.

These were the same folks that declared their undying support for representative government, but they couldn’t name a single one of those representatives.

Which brings me to the signs. I had a candidate tell me last week that he didn’t’ spend any money on signs.  Signs don’t vote, he said, and he devoted his time to one-on-one conversations.

That candidate got his ass handed to him at the polls. True, signs don’t vote.  But they sure do seem to work.

When people pay no attention to what’s going on at a city council level, a name means a lot. Just having it on a sign and having more signs in more convenient places means winning the election.

I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Fragility

It was a November Tuesday, back in 1992.  All the local politicos had gathered in a downtown bar, and I imagined they were sitting around a big table, laughing and tossing back drink after drink.

I always imagined one guy at the center of that little party, a local attorney-turned-realtor, laughing louder than the rest, drinking more and generally having a better, more boisterous time.

I, on the other hand, was stuck at the Town Clerk’s office with a notebook, dutifully writing down numbers and names, figuring out who the next Town Councilors were going to be. Election night. It was a position I find myself in once a year.

Anyway, I made my way back to the newsroom, notebook, names and numbers in hand. I’d made arrangements earlier to call the candidates once I knew the winners, and luckily for me that night most were clustered in that one little bar. I called it, and the lawyer-turned-realtor snatched up the phone.

Here’s the deal. He was a successful, rich, educated, handsome guy. Glib, serious, polished, he assumed he’d do really well at the polls.

But he didn’t. He got absolutely spanked, embarrassingly so. I mean, he had  two votes or something— he and his wife, probably. I’m sure it made for uncomfortable talk at work the next day.

“Sure, I voted for you, Peter,” they said.

Uh huh.

Anyway, he was the first guy to grab the phone. I recognized his voice, but asked for someone else.

“Is this Scott? It is! Hey Scott! It’s Peter!”

I said hi, and asked for the other person.

“Oh sure. So. But, how’d I do?”

I didn’t want to be the one to tell him, but I really had no choice. It was the only way to get him off the phone so I could talk to the winners, finish my story and meet my deadline.

“You lost,” I said. “Didn’t win. Sorry.”

That should be enough, I thought. Nope.

“What? How many votes did I get?”

“Two.” And that was that, the very last time I talked to him. Ever. My sources that night say he dropped the phone, just picked up his coat and wandered out the door. Didn’t talk to another soul, didn’t pay his tab.  A few months later, I found out he’d completely moved out-of-town.

The thing is, some 17 years later, I can still recall his name but not the folks that beat him. Somehow, his humiliation lodged itself in my memory.

It’s no surprise that politicians have big egos. It’s a must.  They’d never run if they didn’t think that they were best.  And frankly, in my opinion, that’s not a bad thing.

And I guess it’s not surprising how incredibly vulnerable those same egos can be. It simply cannot be easy to put yourself in such wide-open position, to leave yourself so vulnerable to an utterly humiliating defeat.

I’m guessing the waiting isn’t the worst part, but it has to be a close second.

Some friends have told me that the local Lewiston-Auburn politicos are working themselves into a fine froth. With less than a week before the municipal election, they’re getting anxious. Not sleeping well, I gather.

I’m not foolish enough to guess who’s going to have their egos crushed, or who’s going to have that pleasure delayed for another two years.

And I’ll be there Tuesday night, writing a story about the lucky few. But I’ll be thinking about the ones that got spanked.

Persecution

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson.

That’s my current favorite quote right now and a good mantra to keep in mind.

Thanks to Mike Calhoun for passing it along to the Twitterverse.

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