Wednesday, July 30, 2008

No Cowboys

A few years back Bingham Township was busy making headlines, and they weren't the sort of headlines anyone wants to see. Bingham Township's supervisor was the subject of a scathing editorial in the Traverse City Record-Eagle:

Once again, a township supervisor — this time Bingham Township's Robert Foster — seems to have gotten it into his head that he is a law unto himself. And taxpayers will probably pay to set him straight.

Foster has thumbed his nose at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, exposing the township to possible litigation and liability; claimed a beach grooming permit he didn't have; accused the township clerk of being the subject of a nonexistent mail fraud investigation; and allegedly pushed an elected official out of office (though his wife, Patricia, is credited with the actual physical contact), again exposing the township to litigation and liability.

Not bad for less than two years in office.

My friends in Bingham were so mortified and disgusted by the spectacle that I made it a point to thank my Leland Township supervisor, Harry Larkin, for doing whatever it was he did to keep us low profile and out of the headlines. Harry was philosophical about the compliment, saying, "I figure that my job is to call the meetings and make sure that everyone follows the law."

It was a simple statement, but it was the seed of my decision to run for township trustee. Government on all levels seems to be a deafening competition between personalities and interest groups, where if one side is right, the other must be wrong. It's easy to forget that we are a nation of laws, and that we share a lot of common interests, that most of us are pretty nice people who are neither always right or always wrong, and that we have a good deal to learn from each other.

Foster's antics only mirrored the national scene, elected officials who see themselves as above the law, and who see the basic procedures of government -- the Freedom of Information Act, the Open Meetings laws, everything from the Bill of Rights to beach grooming laws -- as annoyances, not disciplines.

When I thought about serving as an elected official as a matter of trying to be on the popular side of large number of issues, it seemed like the worst job in the world. But when I thought about serving on the town board as working for the common good, within the constraints of laws and procedures, well, this was a job I could do. I work in the casino, in an industry that uses procedures to ensure and demonstrate honesty. I have spent the last 15 years as a 4-H volunteer teaching chess- a game that teaches how to win without gloating and lose without whining and how to think ahead about the future consequences of each action.

I've been thinking lately about 1998 and 1999, when I spent one or two nights a week for most of those years meeting with about 50 other volunteers on the Leland School Facilities Group, trying to make a monumental decision about the future of our school. We were asked to look at three alternatives: consolidating with another school, moving our school to a more rural location with room to expand, or expanding and renovating on our small, landlocked village location. Like a lot of others, I joined the group with a lot of preconceived ideas. We researched and argued and got to know each others' points of view. In the end, we made a good decision because we took our time, respected the learning process, and didn't rush to conclusions.

I was concerned when I saw news stories last year describing a breakdown of civility at Leland Town Board meetings:

During board member comment at the end of the three-hour meeting, Keen said she is concerned the level of vitriol that is displayed at all township meetings is giving the township a bad image. She referred to a joint meeting held last month with the township planning commission and sewer commission about future growth in the township. Keen said public comments leveled at former commission chairman Stephen Clem by Lake Leelanau resident Steve Mikowski were part of the reason Clem resigned from the commission. She alleged Mikowski used profanity during his comments, saying it was unnecessary. Mikowski denied using profanity, adding he has never used such language at any meeting during his comments.

Keen said the public’s perception of township government is not good.

“I ask people I think would be good people to have on our committees and commissions if they would be willing to serve, and they say ‘No way would I put myself through that,’” she said.

Both Keen and Plamondon said the use of loud voices at township board meetings by Lederle and Larkin often wear them out. Plamondon, who sits between Larkin and Lederle at board meetings, said he would like to see a change in the seating arrangements.

“When I leave here after a meeting, I’m usually going home with a headache,” he said.
Keen said she is unsure if she wants to continue serving.

“It frightens me where we are going to go in the future. We’re only going to get people who have an agenda to serve on our committees and commissions because no one else will be willing to serve,” she said.
When the township emergency response team started their own facilities study group last year, they found their work undermined by the same township trustee who is now challenging Larkin for the supervisor position.

I'm supporting Harry Larkin as the sort of person who is there to serve, not to advance any particular agenda. I suspect that if we each took one of those "Issues surveys" that are all the rage now we'd end up on opposite sides of each question, but that's OK, since he's there to serve the township and its system of government, not to force everyone to agree with his views.

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