Local democracy as well as local lettuce

Sam Smith, 2009

Voting for the first time in Maine, I have had the pleasure of another first: an election in which 50-70 percent of voters in my town agreed with me on six out of seven referenda (including supporting gay marriage). There was one city council member running unopposed and I haven’t heard yet about the three slots on the sewer district, but I took the advice of an old friend (and a Republican) on that one so it doesn’t really count.

The fact that I got to vote for who was on the sewer district, however, does count. After all I spent some four decades in Washington DC, trying to convince people that we should have an elected attorney general and comptroller and only now has a bill for the former been submitted to Congress. Submitted to Congress because DC is still a colony of the U.S. and the world’s greatest democracy doesn’t want its capital deciding for itself whether to have an elected attorney general.

The other evening I got another taste for what local democracy felt like. I attended a meeting concerning an alternative agricultural center whose manure runoff during the wettest summer in Maine history had helped cause the nearby clam flats to be closed.

The farm (with which I’ve been long involved) quickly removed cattle from the area and took other corrective steps; the meeting was about where to go from here. There were representatives from three state agencies, the local shellfish commission, the local clamming and oyster trade, the farm, not to mention the clam warden. It was all chaired by the head of the town council.

I calculated that attendance – around 50 – represented approximately six percent of the population of the town. In DC this would have meant a crowd of 3500, something I never saw. Secondly, in my former home the issue would have likely become highly controversial and full of superfluous rhetoric. I had been a neighborhood commissioner there and worked my way through problems like this and it wasn’t fun.

But the participants at the Freeport meeting made rational arguments and proposals, listened to the others present, were clearly interested in facts, and sought to find a solution that worked for everyone, both clammers and coastal farm. It was an extremely complicated issue including when and how the water sampling is done, identifying the cause of variations, relative fecal contamination of wild and domesticated animals, shifts in animal location, length of stay in that location, and geography of location.

By the end of the evening, both interests had joined to pressure the Department of Marine Resources to open the flats sooner than they had planned.

I mentioned to a friend afterwards that maybe we should send the whole lot down to Washington to work out a solution on the healthcare bill.

It was also nice, I thought, to be talking sensibly about real manure rather than, as during most of my life, ranting about the fake stuff that is spread so wantonly in Washington.

On election day, the one issue where I was in the minority concerned school consolidation. The state, inspired by the bureaucratic obsessives at the Brookings Institution, had required school districts to consolidate. A number didn’t like it for good reason: for example, it would cost money or the districts were too far apart. For more than fifty years, America has been consolidating school districts and the main effect has been to replace educators with bureaucrats and wardens,

But while Freeport voters supported the consolidation with a 62% majority, 79% of Pownal voters, the next town over – and ordered to consolidate with us at a considerable increase in expense – rejected the plan. Since the plan survived statewide, Freeport won and Pownal lost. It’s a hell of a way to start a relationship.

But it is part of the bureaucratic myth that we are all the same as long as the data says so.

The clamflat meeting – arranged within the community – and the school consolidation – imposed from outside – reflect the difference between what John McKnight called associations vs. institutions:

“The structure of institutions is a design established to create control of people. On the other hand, the structure of associations is the result of people acting through consent.”

Here are some of the characteristics McKnight found among associations in contrast to institutions:

– Interdependency. “If the local newspaper closes, the garden club and the township meeting will each diminish as they lose a voice.”

– Community is built around a recognition of fallibility rather than the ideal.

– Community groups are better at finding a place for everyone.

– Associations can respond quickly since they lack the bureaucracy of large institutions.

– Associations engage in non-hierarchical creativity.

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the importance of localizing food. It makes excellent sense but a question keeps coming to mind: why lettuce and not democracy?

One of my big disappointments in politics has been the indifference of liberals – the sort who boost local food – with keeping democracy close to home as well. They often talk about it as though it was some sort of holdover from the states’ rights days of segregation.

A growing number of people who identify with new liberalism see themselves as experts and take it for granted that the wisest decisions will be made at the top and then passed down as regulations.

These decisions – like school consolidation – tend to rely on data that wipes out the normal variations of human existence. This data turns judgment into an indentured servant instead of just informing it.

Thus we have a stimulus package that creates innumerable obstacles for state and local government, an education plan that wipes out the very system that taught America to be what it became, and a healthcare plan that absolutely no one understands.

Until we rediscover the value of community, it will only get worse. We will find ourselves increasingly, as Bill Mauldin once put it, fugitives from the law of averages.

Propelled by the rapacious ambitions of their members, neither national party cares about this. But then they don’t care about local food either and that didn’t stop that movement from coming to life. Our goal should be to bring democracy, as well as our lettuce, as close to home as possible.

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