Plugging a Hole with Opposition


A hole in the bottom of my water heater has meant that I’ve spent more time than I can spare encountering an old complaint of mine.

Back in 2005, while considering what trade to enter, I noted that Rhode Island’s licensing regulations lead the state to produce half the number of master plumbers in 12 years that Massachusetts would.  In other words, the market can’t adjust to demand as quickly, which pushes up the price that plumbers can charge and affects anybody who needs a plumber in a negative way, in terms of both expense and convenience.

My conclusion has been borne out as my experience of Rhode Island politics has increased:  “the willingness — the drive — to change must be so thorough as to encompass areas that most people not vested in the status quo don’t give any thought.”  In other words, anybody who wants to reform the state will be going up against groups that have a strong interest in keeping things as they are, and the reformer must pull together people who have a more general interest in good government.

One problem that I hadn’t fully appreciated until this year was how difficult it is even to get people to correctly identify reformers.  This challenge has been especially striking this week.  A local man who is spearheading an effort to recall me and another town council member in Tiverton has been telling people that we’ve violated the state Code of Ethics but got away with it because we have “friends” on the Ethics Commission.  Beyond simply being wrong, this is arguably the opposite of the truth.  We weren’t found in violation of the Code of Ethics despite an institutional bias against reformers because we didn’t violate the code.

Another example:  On Monday, the Town Council continued the interim appointment of the town solicitor into a longer-term engagement.  The council members remaining from the prior council wanted to have the discussion at the end of the meeting in a closed executive session… literally in the back room.  We four new council members wanted to have the discussion out in the open.  That’s what we did, but we adjusted our agenda on the fly in order to take care of a couple house-keeping items that would allow staff members to go home before a potentially long debate.

The same local man mentioned above shouted out that we were moving the solicitor discussion back because we were hoping people would leave and fewer voters would see what we were doing.  (All meetings are filmed for YouTube and streamed live on Facebook, by the way.)  Again, the accusation was the opposite of the reality:  The elected officials seeking to give the maximum amount of transparency were accused of trying to hide things.

Among the relatively small group of people who pay close attention to local politics, the rule of thumb is clear to see and probably pretty common:  Everything the reformers do is wrong and everything we want is evil, while everything the old guard does is right and everything they want is good.  What’s new and unsettling to me is how easily that message is pushed out into the public, making me wonder how many political decisions are made in Rhode Island based on impressions that are simply wrong.

The insiders who want to protect their power are quick to go out and spread false, often malicious, ideas about anybody who wants to give power back to the people.  Once they’ve done that, it’s very hard to change minds toward the truth, because there’s always some deeper falsehood to explain the truth away — like the suggestions that the Ethics Commission corrupted itself on our behalf and that moving an agenda item by 10 minutes was somehow more nontransparent than having it in a backroom.  The less tricky we appear, the more tricky we must be being!

The first step upon discovering water in my basement was to find the source, which wasn’t hard given that a stream of warm water was flowing out of the heater where there shouldn’t have been a hole.  The next steps were to find something to plug the hole, to run a hose from the actual drain spout out into the yard, and to spread towels around to soak up the water.  As I ran around the house gathering supplies, my dog started barking about the unusual activity.

The problems facing Rhode Island are pretty obvious, but there are many people with an interest in keeping the status quo.  Imagine somebody who had some reason to want my water heater to keep leaking.  He might tell anybody passing by that I was lying about wanting to fix the problem and was, instead, making it worse.  After all, I obviously didn’t have the professional tools of an established repairman, and it might not even look like it was my house — why would my own dog be barking at me?

Sure, over time, I should be able to prove the truth of the matter, but by that point, the heater would be empty and the basement ruined.