Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association

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.” 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, as well.

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 of fog:

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.

Carlos Montoya




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