Those of us who’ve moved to Tiverton, Rhode Island, within the past fifteen years joke that we won’t be “locals” until we have side streets named after us. The town has its share of standard signs (Main Rd., North Ct.), themed neighborhoods (streets named for trees along Arbor Ter.), and descriptive blocks (Peaceful Way, Whaleback Rd.). But peppered across the map are the names of old families, some still represented in the population (Durfee, Sousa, Peckham).
When we newcomers organized to change the direction of town government, the locals insisted that we weren’t “the real Tiverton.” We were outsiders.
Anybody who has ever moved to another town will recognize that Tiverton isn’t unique in this reaction. Immigrants change a community, and for better or worse, they can undo generations of natives’ careful planning, investments, and relationships.
Consider the cliché about how Rhode Islanders give driving directions based on landmarks that no longer exist. “Turn right where Grand Central Market used to be.” That’s a natural tendency, but it creates a special language — a secret map for those with the connections to decipher it.
The same thing happens in government, and Rhode Island’s small size, one-party domination, and ethnic enclaves may make it especially vulnerable. Public policy sure seems designed to give insiders an edge.
A couple of years ago, Tiverton had a local dispute about the steps the town had to take to increase property taxes above the state tax cap. The Rhode Island General Laws give some broad instructions. The Division of Municipal Finance in the state Department of Revenue issued more-specific regulations that some of us thought contradicted the law. And at the last minute before the townspeople voted on the budget, the chief of Municipal Finance sent a short email to the town administrator that brushed the regulations aside.
Some folks around town will dispute my summary, but the point is that the process feels a lot like “turn right where the market used to be.” Instead, it’s “call up the director of the division of the department that the governor appointed to interpret the law that the legislature passed.” Turn left where the democracy used to be.
The legislative process is another example. Elected representatives submit bills to change the law. The Senate and House leaders assign those bills to appointed committees and decide when they’ll have hearings. Committees vote to hold them for “further study.” From there, the process consists of hidden deals until, at the very end of the session, the legislature suspends its own rules, and good and bad laws flood through the gates.
Just like a driver who doesn’t know where buildings used to be, those who don’t know the secret channels of RI government have three options: We can wander around, getting lost frequently and getting little done. We can hire guides, who will have their own agendas. Or we can simply follow somebody who promises that he’s going to the same place, even if he’s not.
All of these options put political outsiders at a tremendous disadvantage, and there are no easy answers. One obvious conclusion, however, is that we have to be very careful not to follow the Rhode Island Way to any dead ends or endless circles.