VACATIONING IN A TINY PLACE WHERE THE LANDSCAPE HAS BEEN SAVED AND DEMOCRACY IS ON THE AGENDA
THE BLOCK ISLAND TOWN HALL, October 2, 2023
MY WIFE AND I don’t take many vacations, but when we do, one must activity includes going to a meeting the town council of the place where we’re at, depending on whether the local government’s and our schedules coincide. Luckily for us, the Block Island town council (legally, the New Shoreham council) was meeting on the second evening of our one-week stay on what is a spectacular, tiny chunk of rock and sand 12 miles off the Rhode Island mainland. We made sure that we had an early supper, so as not to be tardy; in fact, part of our adventures earlier in the day had been to check out the parking situation at town hall, ensuring there’d be sufficient room for a car arriving with two off-islanders. Everything went as planned, and when the meeting ended – it SEEMED like two hours later - some of the council members cheerfully quizzed us as to whom we were and why we were there. In a town of some 1,000 year-round residents, strangers at a council meeting warrants an investigation. We told them that’s just what we do on vacation. What we didn’t tell them was that this year the story was more complex, and had everything to do with Donald Trump, who had spent HIS day in a New York courtroom, insulting the judge and prosecutors who would determine to what degree he has been a business cheat. It would have taken too much time to explain the connection between Defendant Trump and the Block Island council, and even if we’d tried, it would have sounded as batty as the desperate, deranged times in which we all are trapped. * * * THE MEETING ITSELF, to put it mildly, was insufferably routine, especially given recent dramatic happenings on a island where extraordinarily generous landowners and philanthropists have conserved nearly half of the island’s stunning landscape as forever-open-space, but where, for the most part, only the Superrich can afford homes that run into the millions of dollars. A big event had happened Aug. 18, when one of the town’s landmarks, the Harborside Inn, was destroyed by a fire so fierce that crews and equipment from mainland departments had to be brought by ferry to assist island firefighters. No one was killed, and nearby wooden buildings were largely spared. The cause may have been connected with grease buildup in the kitchen exhaust system, and there was controversy about whether the place was appropriately inspected.
AFTERMATH of the fire that destroyed the Harborside Inn Aug. 18
By the time we arrived, more than a month later, demolition crews were hauling away the last piles of debris, including, bizarrely, a giant mound of bicycle frames and parts, all that remained of a bike rental outlet that had been next to the inn. And the week before we got there, ferry service to and from the island was suspended for several days because of rough water caused by an ocean storm most of us weren’t paying attention to – a disruption that was especially difficult for island businesses dependent on tourism and for which every summer day counts on the bottom lines of their fragile balance sheets. None of which was discussed at the particular town council meeting we attended Oct. 2. Nope. The agenda was spectacularly mind-numbing, of the sort that makes you wonder why five presumably sensible men and women would want to serve on the council in the first place, much less seek reelection once they got a of taste of what local government is really about. The Block Island town hall is a modernistic, squeaky clean building, and the council chambers are comfortable but spare, the council members seated behind a long desk at the front, facing rows of chairs for the audience, reminding me of the profound simplicity of early New England meeting houses. An ultra-modern addition is a giant TV screen on one wall, so that much of council business can be conducted remotely over the Internet, a holdover benefit of the Covid years. Indeed, much of the “action” this evening included on-screen presentations from consultants, who might have been on Mars, advising the town about reconstruction of its school building and an ongoing upgrade of the municipal website. The town planner, who could have been on the moon, explained the convoluted process of harmonizing town zoning ordinances with recently enacted state laws. A big chunk of discussion had to do with Agenda Item 11 , labeled: “Discussion and act on requesting the Recreation Board and Staff to create a short and long term recreation strategy/plan regarding new and potentially retrofitted assets (courts, fields, etc.) on town land.” As it turned out, what this was really about was pickleball, in part whether the town’s sole outdoor basketball court, and one or two of its tennis courts, might be converted into pickleball courts. I’m guessing here that that the obscure wording of the agenda item, whether deliberately or not, avoided the tiny town council chambers from being overrun by pickleball fanatics, tennis and basketball players worried they might be shoved aside by the pickleballers, and neighbors panicked by the prospect, real or imagined, of noise, traffic and parking conflicts. No decisions were made, other than to have the town staff look into present and future recreational needs in a place where land and resources are finite and precious. Toward the end of the agenda was something I thought might provoke some controversy. When I used to cover local town councils and school committee as a newspaper reporter, I always hoped some end-of-the-meeting subjects might result in an outbreak of “trouble,” a commodity otherwise known in the trade as news. In this case, the town manager was proposing that a long-serving lieutenant be named interim chief of the police department following the sudden resignation of the former chief. I wondered whether such an appointment might stir up debate, given the sensitivity of the post in a town often swarmed by alcohol-infused tourists, plus the possibility that an interim appointment might lead to a permanent one, much to the chagrin of other chief-hopefuls. Nope. Both the council and the lieutenant were delighted with the idea and the meeting quickly came to a close. * * * SO WHY DID A FUN COUPLE from off-island spend a precious evening of a short vacation at the New Shoreham R.I. town hall? In previous vacations, we’d found that sitting in on a town council meeting is a way to get a flavor of the place we’re visiting. We did so once at the West Tisbury select board’s meeting on Martha’s Vineyard, although it was so long ago that I don’t remember what exactly we learned. Many years ago, during another Block Island visit, we went to a council hearing on a proposal to build a wind turbine at the town rubbish transfer station, an attempt to cut notoriously high electricity costs for municipal buildings. It was the first time we got a taste of how controversial wind power can be. Indeed, the proposal failed, although ironically, five giant turbines later were installed off Block Island, setting the stage for larger offshore projects off New England. But the reason this year’s vacation visit to a town hall was different: it was both personal and emotional. Donald Trump, the most evil and vile president in U.S. history – a racist, liar, a rapist, insurrectionist, defendant in numerous court cases and a would-be autocrat – stands a real chance of regaining his office in an election just 12 months from now, an event which will mean a catastrophic collapse of democracy in every corner of America. So, what better way to spend part of our vacation than in a place where democracy is practiced in its most primal and immediate form? Don’t get me wrong, small town governments are far from perfect. Cheating, stealing and ineptness are as alive and well at the grassroots as they are in state and national capitals. But most men and women who work at the town level give up big chunks of their lives to make their communities work. They worry about limited recreation “assets” in the face of a national pickleball craze, and whether the municipal website can be improved to give the public a better idea of what they do. They care about the quality of construction at their kids’ school. And whether a man who has given 20 of his best years as a police officer might finish his career as his department’s leader. All of which may disappear in an election now just a year away. But last night it felt good to be in a beautiful place, where democracy was in full swing and was the most important item on the agenda.
I'VE BEEN a reporter and writer for 58 years, long enough to have learned that journalists don't know very much, although I've met some smart ones. Mainly, what reporters know comes from asking other people questions and fretting about the answers. This blog is a successor to one inspired by our dog, Phoebe, who was smart, sweet and the antithesis of Donald Trump. She died Feb. 3, and I don't see getting over that very soon. Occasionally, I may try to reach her via cell phone.