Not only has the public forum section of selectman's meetings gone the way of the 8 track tape - but now you have to take a number just to ask a question - and there's no guarantee that anyone's going to get back to you. A majority of our five member board of selectmen are now also town employees. And perhaps not unexpectedly, our selectmen are getting punched out in local drinking establishments.
Our past is equally colorful. It's been marked by an excess of prop. 2 1/2 overrides. A shuttered library, and a recently matriculated selectman who chose to celebrate his election victory by phoning up his frenemies and calling them bad names.
And for some reason... Bridgewater was one of the ONLY towns in the entire region which did not allow a public forum to discuss casino impacts. In fact, despite being one of the most populated abutters and even sharing a road which would lead directly to the now-defunct dead-parrot Middleboro casino, Bridgewater's representatives were regular no-show's at the Regional Task Force meetings.
And, it was during the casino summer of 2007 when one of our selectman grasped the swinging gavel out of Middleboro's Marsha Brunelle heavy hand and scurried back to Bridgewater, using the same dusty excuse she'd dug out of some archive to squelch our long tradition of public forum (while the regular chairman was conveniently away on family businesss.)
And going back, there's even more.
In fact, if it weren't for the Adam Bond years, I'd think it possible we'd have found a town even wackier than Middleboro.
As wacky as it is, as it turned out, I did end up sort of liking good old selectman Gallagher, the guy with the crazy election day temper - who went on to survive a recall attempt before retiring recently. I tried to think about something good to say about him but essentially, it's that he turned out to be mostly harmless. And sadly, in Bridgewater, that, more often than not, seems to be as good as we can get.
To me, the ability to cause actual substantial harm, not just to their town, but to mine as well, was what compelled me to monitor the Middleboro Board so closely during the casino chronicles.
But what toubles me lately is something I read in a May 22nd article entitled “Bridgewater selectman's meeting policy draws criticism”
“(Selectman Stanley Kravitz) called around to many of the towns in the area and none of them allow an open public forum like Bridgewater had until the policy change. Kravitz said it’s more fair to everyone to give selectmen a head’s up on the topic to be discussed, so they can respond in an informed way”Which leaves me wondering which towns 'in the area' that Mr. Kravtiz called. Or if perhaps they were actually 'in the area' of Cuba, China or North Korea.
Two years ago when a Cape Cod tribe wanted to build the world's largest casino down the road from my home in Bridgewater, I went to first ever selectman's meeting – in Middleboro – and where I encountered my first-ever public forum.
I was fascinated by it - learning as much from those who supported a casino as those who opposed it - and by the process itself. Of being able to stand up and speak and be heard by the folks who ran the town. It was sometimes colorful and sometimes heated, but it was always interesting.
And it didn't last long. Marsha killed it and the Board stuffed cotton in their ears for the next two years as far as criticism of a casino was concerned.
But that seems to have changed. Somewhere along the way, people were allowed to ask questions again. And when they did, it had the expected result - you got to learn more about these masters of the small town universe . You realized how defensive they could be, and discovered their often unorthodox views about the public they served, and witnessed their bizarre behavior.
I mean, Toto may have had to drag the 'wizard' out from behind the curtain by his ankle - but once he did - life got better for everybody didn't it?
The public, it seems, can handle the truth. It just can't stomach a bunch of squirrely fruitcakes with something to hide.
So let's hear it for Middleboro - which somewhere along the way, and perhaps unwittingly, brought back the public forum. And for those who asked the uncomfortable questions. And for those selectman who (eventually) answered most of those questions - despite Marsha's willing gavel at the ready - and who did it on TV for all their universe to see.
Because, as a result, Middleboro may slowly be evolving back into a democracy.
What I've learned is that when local leaders abdicate their responsibility to the democratic process, perhaps motivated by their own opinions or ambitions, or a need for attention, is it really a surprise that the result is alternately chaos and outrage? We saw that experiment unfold in Middleboro during the casino war - a petri dish where fights broke out on sidewalks, spitballs sailed the skies, and opinionated signage went missing. Neighborhoods were divided, friendships were strained. Fear and anger lingered everywhere. And in the end, it only served the purpose of casino investors.
Oddly enough, though I've never actually spoken in Middleboro or Bridgewater (where I was gaveled), I have spoken at selectman's meetings and public forums in Plympton, Halifax, Carver, Lakeville and Raynham and my colleagues have done the same in Berkley, Rochester and Kingston. These towns not only welcomed input from the public – they even opened their forum, and their minds, to an out of towner.
The same can be said for the representative selectmen from the 17 Town Regional Task Force on Casino Impacts.
Then there was that evening when, after sitting through 13 hours of testimony - and with vacuums roaring to life in the visitors gallery - that even the Massachusetts House committee for Economic Development listened to what I had to say.
And I did not have to wait a week, register my questions beforehand or take a number to do any of this.
Which makes me wonder, why is it, when the selectman in all these area towns, as well as assorted elected officials from across the State aren't afraid, or too busy, or unprepared to listen to what a citizen of Bridgewater has to say, that Bridgewater is?