Letter to the Editor, MV Times
Questions need answers in Aquinnah
To the Editor:
I had a chance, the other night, to see the public access
TV video of the Aquinnah selectmen’s meeting earlier
in November. It felt awkward and saddening to watch, to see
where the discussion that day started and where it ended (to
wit, in about the same place).
The same dilemma seems to be true of political dialogue in
Aquinnah, generally, over the past couple of years. Again,
it is disheartening to watch all of us in Aquinnah hope that
new and enlightening facts are going to emerge, that discussions
and negotiations will come to fruition, that thesis is going
to meet antithesis to produce synthesis, that we are actually
going to move meaningfully toward closure and conclusions
on major town political matters.
But, it just doesn’t happen. And, each time it doesn’t
happen, hands go to the forehead and residents say to themselves
or to each other, “My God, I can’t believe it.”
The town fiscal problems this year epitomize this condition.
The selectmen appeared — to me at least — to deal
with the current revenue issue by just sending re-packaged
budget override proposals to the voters, again and again.
No broad dialogue with town residents as a group over a revenue
plan that could take us all successfully into the future (a
selectmen’s meeting or a finance committee meeting doesn’t
qualify for that, under the circumstances). What were they
thinking? That everyone would eventually just become too exhausted
and fed up with the mess to resist the request?
That didn’t happen. Telling residents, in effect, to
just belly up, get real, and pay the money didn’t cut
it. Town voters decided that they would rather suffer a financial
crisis than just continue like sheep down the current know-nothing
path, which would have meant — they seemed to be saying
— behaving like the Wizard of Oz or the emperor with
no clothes. A majority kept going to the voting booth and
kept turning down the override requests, with the selectmen,
in the end, needing to read between the lines as to just what
it all meant (not that it took that much reading — echoes
of Beverly Widdiss’s recent letter of resignation).
In the end, it would appear that town residents sensed that
they still did not have a full understanding of all the facts
underlying the revenue dilemmas (not to be confused with the
woefully inadequate charge that Aquinnah voter discontent
with the override requests was fundamentally about prejudice
against young tribal children).
You ask, what’s the forecast? Well, it looks like more
of the same (and very soon), as town selectmen apparently
prepare to attempt a fourth version of the very same gambit
(i.e., “Folks, just gives us the money, but don’t
expect any long-run solutions or explanations”). The
version this time is to just get the money they want from
the town stabilization fund.
This is not to say that political discussion is not occurring
at the town level. It’s just that nobody gets to know
much — or, perhaps, anything, for that matter —
about how those are actually going. One example would be the
periodic discussions that the selectmen and the tribe have
been having for the last two years over creative ways for
the town and the tribe to successfully resolve differences
in a political way. That’s a pretty fundamental topic,
I’d say. I am actually only guessing, though, that I
have described this right. Why? Because I have never actually
heard anyone report anything substantial back to town voters,
at large, about those discussions.
That this should be so is a problem, seems to me. How could
the selectmen not feel that, after a couple of years of discussions
on this priority topic, it might be time to fill in the rest
of us about the status and substance of a discussion that
will affect us profoundly — even if the news were not
so great, for the moment?
I think I even remember reading that the Aquinnah selectmen
had in fact agreed, amongst themselves, on a way of representing
the town at those discussions that would not require the meetings
with the tribe to be considered public and therefore would
not have to be open to reporters or cameras. Nothing personal
on their part, though, because I am not so sure the selectmen
even keep each other informed effectively and reliably on
these discussions — and perhaps on other town issues,
Look, I realize that town/tribe discussions of this nature
can be sensitive, and that negotiations require some privacy
to be effective (hmmm.... wasn’t that VP Cheney’s
point about releasing information to the public on the very
private — perhaps even clubby — energy policy
discussions at the White House at the beginning President
Bush’s first term?). But geez, even allowing for some
confidentiality, not one meaningful peep to the rest of us
about these town/tribe discussions in all that time? That
can’t be okay. Not, that is, if what you are looking
to develop is overall trust and support.
And this is just one of a number of political issues in Aquinnah
where not even the facts in question (much less the substance
of various positions) are necessarily clear to the Aquinnah
public — and, it seems, not even to the selectmen, themselves,
sometimes. Following are some public issues in Aquinnah that
seem to remain consistently hidden behind an immutable veil
I . Could somebody just present Aquinnah residents with a
copy of the reported agreement with the tribe concerning town/tribe
relationship regarding fire, police, and emergency services?
References are made to it constantly, but nobody is ever quite
sure about what it says for sure. Is it so obtuse that a normal
person couldn’t figure it out? May I see that, please
(which doesn’t mean having to go to the registry or
rummage around blind in the file cabinets at town hall)?
2. Could somebody show us a copy of the agreement between
town and tribe regarding tribal housing, and document the
search (such as it has — or has not — been) for
funds to help compensate the town for its loss of tax base?
3. Could somebody tell us all, in clear language, if federal
impact aid (now available in the billions of dollars) is potentially
available to Aquinnah to cover this very type of problem,
and what actions are going to be taken, by whom, and when,
to try and get us qualified? If we don’t qualify, please
let us know exactly why not.
4. Could somebody please stand up and summarize for us the
results of ongoing negotiations between the town and the tribe
that have been underway for a couple of years to find ways
to resolve differences?
It doesn’t seem, judging from the experience of the
last couple of years, that the current selectmen are temperamentally
suited to take this kind of an initiative. Maybe it is more
serious, still — that is, that they really don’t
think it is necessary. But — to be fair — that
doesn’t mean, though, that they wouldn’t be willing
to cooperate with a body that did. Under the circumstances,
I would, therefore, suggest the appointment of a wise persons’
commission in Aquinnah to conduct definitive research into,
and supply an analysis of: the principal town/tribe agreements;
availability of federal impact aid; the status and results
of the ongoing town/tribe negotiations; and the truths and
myths of town revenue flow, now and in the future.
This body would submit a written report, address a special
town meeting regarding the results of their research and analysis,
and outline a range of policy choices that could flow from
the results of the research. They should have the independence
it takes to let the cookie crumble as it may — at least
in their view. Part of that could mean appointing at least
some individuals not from Aquinnah; this would not be a time
for town jingoism and hubris.
But, in the end, it can only be the town as a whole —refreshed
by the facts, by analysis, by fresh air, and guided by a healthy
respect for the opinions of the wise persons — that
must decide what actions to take for the future.
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