I BEG TO DIFFER: ‘They’ are us

Jo Ann Augeri Silva
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Marblehead resident Jo Ann Augeri Silva, a retired journalist, author, public relations professional and educator, was an editor of the Marblehead Reporter.

It’s election season, so lawns are littered with campaign signs and Facebook pages are littered with claims that “they” have made a mess of things, so let’s vote “them” out. Since Marblehead has the first general override question since 2005 on the ballot as well, those “us vs. them” cries are even louder than usual.

Here’s the thing: There is no “them” in Marblehead. “They” are all “us.”

Policy decisions in Marblehead are made by volunteers. Really. A few elected town officials receive a stipend, but the amount is so small it rarely covers the expenses a person incurs when serving the town, and it hardly counts as a salary. 

Our elected and appointed town officials hire paid employees, and those paid employees implement policies set by volunteers. We vote for those volunteers. If we don’t approve of the policies they make, it’s our job to vote for people whose policies we like better. Or, run for office ourselves. Complaining without helping to solve a problem is just whining. 

Many official positions, like the Finance Committee and Zoning Board of Appeals, are appointed, usually by the Select Board. Every one of those appointed positions is filled by volunteers. Spots often are left unfilled because “we” don’t apply for them. 

And yet. Hear those cries: “They” have mismanaged our funds. “They” have mismanaged our schools, our Municipal Light Department, our roads, our trees. “They” have been in office too long, or not long enough. There are Facebook pages dedicated to lambasting the way the town is run by “them.” “They” can’t win.

Please don’t mistake this as an apologia for officials who don’t know what they’re doing. There are some of those, just as there are some officials who have been in office beyond their retire-by date. I wish they knew who they are. 

There are all sorts of reasons why people run for office or ask to be appointed to an office. In general, these folks seek only to serve. They have skills they’d like to share for the betterment of our town. As volunteers.

Who are those folks? Us. You and me. Your neighbors, maybe your friends. They are among the 16,232 registered voters in our town, like most of you reading this. And if you are among those 16,232, you could be among them. All you have to do is figure out what you’d like to do for Marblehead, run for office yourself, or apply for one of those many empty volunteer jobs.

Of course, there are those who run, or apply, because they have one axe or another to grind, and some who seem to get off on the perceived (if to this writer imperceptible) perks of wielding some form of power over others. Fortunately, even if they get elected or appointed, most of that type doesn’t last long, and when they finally leave you can hear the collective sigh of relief from Fort Sewall to Tedesco. 

Admittedly, most of these jobs are thankless. Take the Zoning Board of Appeals. Please. I served on the ZBA for several years, first as an alternate and then as secretary.

Serving on the ZBA takes a lot of work. Learning the town’s by-laws and state precedents, carefully reviewing applications, visiting properties, listening to homeowners defend their right to build additions, garages, sheds, new construction, and then listening to neighbors lambasting those homeowners because the proposal would negatively impact their property in some way. 

Many folks come to town believing that once they buy a property, they can do anything they want with it and are horrified at town by-laws that set limits on their hopes, dreams and divine rights. Conversely, there are folks who can’t conceive of any change whatsoever in their neighborhood, so they oppose everything. We won’t get into big, controversial projects except to say this: Yelling “the fix is in” at a ZBA meeting betrays a serious break with the reality of government as it’s run here. 

So, yeah, look under “thankless jobs” in the dictionary and “serving on the Marblehead ZBA” is listed first. 

Sadly, ZBA is not alone. Pretty much every other town board, committee and commission is listed there as well. 

What is it about taking on a thankless, unpaid job that makes our fellow residents start disagreeing disagreeably about the way the job is being done? What motivates a person to start a social media page whose main purpose is to criticize the way anything is done in 01945? And after living here only 10 years?

What motivates a person to stalk away mad after convincingly losing an election and devote the rest of their natural life to claiming that the town should “pay the price” for re-electing the “old” folks they disagree with? What motivates a (very) small number of disagreeable people to organize a group with the main goal of upending every municipal institution in town because they disagree with them? 

Do any of these disagreeables think carefully about the services our town offers for our tax dollars? Do they ever compare those services against those of surrounding towns with considerably higher tax rates? Do they ever do more than come up with long lists of grievances combined with precious few effective solutions? 

Democracy in our not-so-small seacoast town has always been a little cranky. Study Marblehead history and be amazed at the things voters have turned down — for one, Benjamin Abbot’s bequest to build what is now Abbot Hall was initially rejected.  

What’s kept the town running remarkably smoothly over these nearly 400 years is that reason has won out over unreasonableness. When things go wrong, volunteers in elected and appointed office have worked together to make things right. If they kept getting it wrong, they got voted out, or new volunteers got appointed. 

Replaced by whom? By people like us, volunteers who take the risk of putting in the work of devoting their skills to making the town work better. In other words, putting their work where their mouths are. Disagreeing without being disagreeable. Becoming part of the solution. Realizing that there is no “them,” but only “us.”

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