Diary of a Local Activist

Shall I… or shan’t I?  I’m inclined, at the moment, to muse philosophical on the experience of local advocacy, attempting to stay away from specifics.  Of course, some particulars are impossible to avoid, and people can only be made angry.

One particular is this:  With three-year-old daughter in tow, I trudged my way through a two-hour Board of Canvassers meeting, this afternoon, and echoing through my head was Alice’s exchange with the Cheshire Cat:

Alice: But I don’t want to go among mad people.

Cat: Oh, you can’t help that.  Most everyone’s mad, here.  You may have noticed that I’m not all there, myself.

Alice: Goodness.  If the people here are like that, I must try not to upset them.

Let’s just say that our town charter is absolutely unambiguous on a particular matter of process.  People who ought to have known better, and who are rightly embarrassed by it, messed up in following that process.  Now, they’re attacking the charter itself, pretending that it is impossible to interpret, in order to do what they wanted to do without having to follow the rules.

This is an old trick we’ve seen before in town and across the country:  When the town’s constitution (which is what a charter is) says something that powerful elected officials don’t like, well then, it must be “ambiguous” and “subject to interpretation” so that it can be interpreted to mean something that it clearly does not.

I suppose in this realm of asserted ambiguities, I must say that this is all my interpretation. My point with this post isn’t the specifics, but the challenge this all poses to political philosophy and the principle of self governance.

One side (that’s me) presents pages and pages of documentation, with exhibits, legal citations, and logical arguments to make the case for a particular answer to a legal question.  The other side — not lawyers, themselves — plays the lawyer’s trick of sowing confusion and creating space for the deciding board to find in their favor for wholly political or personal reasons having nothing to do with the rule of law.  To the extent that they look to the future and the precedent they’re setting, they seem to take on faith that only their side will thus abuse the rules.  (My mind bends more national, here, than this little local issue.)

Meanwhile, everybody longs desperately for some legal authority to offer a definitive answer.  The problem is that our system of government isn’t designed to have — ultimately — rule by lawyer.  Tiverton’s last solicitor (it seemed to me) had taken it as his job to be the lawyer for the most powerful voices on the council, presenting cases so as to effectuate their will.  Our current solicitor takes a more objective, appropriate approach, but one can’t help but give some weight to Alice’s advice:  If everybody’s nuts, it’s prudent not to upset them.

At the end of the day, elected officials have to make decisions, and those decisions often come down to a pretty simple choice:

  • Is your fidelity to the rule of law and the written documents by which we agree to bind ourselves for mutual respect and cooperation, or
  • Is your fidelity to people or groups for ideological, personal, or political reasons, with the written rules little more than guidelines to bring about the results desired for other reasons?

If it’s the former, sometimes you’ve got to say, “I agree with what you want to do, but you didn’t follow the rules, so you lose this round.”

Correcting the overall problem I’m describing here, an its tendency to produce bad outcomes, is one of the key challenges currently facing Rhode Island.  We can’t rely on legal authorities, because then the corrupt will work to compromise their judgment.  We can’t leave it all up to political bodies to do what they feel is necessary given the circumstances of the moment, because then insiders will simply capture the political bodies.

What our system needs, therefore, is a group of reasonable people, elected through political processes, yes, but with an underlying devotion to the rule of law and the capacity to sort out what the law says and what is just noise.  Unfortunately, when people’s livings and positions of power are dependent upon domination of the political system, they will make it so uncomfortable to be that reasonable official that few people who would actually fulfill the mandate will care to take the position.

All of this goes back to the suggestion that government ought to be used very sparingly, accomplishing those of society’s ends that cannot reasonably be accomplished by some other form of social interaction.  So, the next question is how we get back to that principle…


Of the following two issues related to Rhode Island’s public schools, which one is a greater concern?

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