I Love Living in a Small Town!

Looking for a Good Meeting in Hawley, Massachusetts

Life  in Hawley, Massachusetts, pickles me Tink.

I recently became chair of our local volunteer arts council. This group, the Charlemont-Hawley Cultural Council, distributes funds once a year allocated to the towns of Charlemont and Hawley by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The grants go to projects involving the arts and the humanities, often with an educational component.

I had been a semi-active member of the council for the past few years. It often met when I was out of town, but I managed to participate by reading grant proposals and relaying my recommendations to the rest of the group.

This summer our council got an email from the state informing us that if no one volunteered to serve as chair (Mary Campbell of Charlemont, who epitomizes community spirit, had held the post as many years as she was legally able to) the council would receive no funds from the state for 2013. There was email silence for a while, and then I broke down and said I’d take on the job.

The council supports events that are important to our community, including Mohawk Trail Concerts, our local chamber-music series; many special programs in the local schools; and the Charlemont Forum, a summer lecture series on ethics and politics. It has even supported me in the past, giving me money to help publish my cookbook and write my food blog. It seemed heartless (not to mention ungrateful) not to step in.

From left to right: Joanne MacLean, Julia White, Ellen Miller, Andrea Santos, Pam Shrimpton, and Lida Forbes at last night’s meeting

The council met yesterday evening at the Hawley Town Office to discuss who would get funds in 2013. The council received more applications than it has in any other year so the process of making decisions was fascinating if occasionally frustrating. We had applications from schools, theater groups, the senior center, both towns’ historical societies, and individual artists, scholars, and musicians.

Our group, composed of four members from Charlemont and three from Hawley, worked swiftly and cheerfully together to find just the right combination of recipients to receive this year’s allocation. Pam Shrimpton of Hawley noted with delight how much fun it was to go to a meeting in which she actually got to make decisions instead of listen to endless (sometimes pointless!) discussion. We all felt lucky to be able to help worthy groups and individuals.

We nibbled on a little freshly baked pumpkin bread. And we were entertained by our almost-audience for the meeting. In keeping with the state’s open-meeting law, we had posted the time and date of our proposed meeting at both town halls, noting that the public was invited to attend.

In the end, the only members of the public who seemed interested in joining us were the farm animals across the road from the Hawley Town Office. The calves mooed at us as they surveyed the flowers outside the door.

And we had to shoo several chickens away from the doorway.

Why did the chicken cross the road? Obviously, to go to a Cultural-Council meeting!

I have a feeling the Cultural Council in Boston doesn’t have nearly this much fun….

Meeting the Candidates

Tedd White (left) and Lark Thwing at the Candidates' Forum

Monday evening as I sat at a forum for candidates running for selectman in my hometown of Hawley, Massachusetts, I wondered what it would be like if we knew all of our candidates personally—particularly those in the upcoming presidential race.

My guess is that if I’d known Barack Obama and Mitt Romney for years, I’d be less inclined to listen to their positions and policies and more inclined to draw on my experience with them to judge their fitness for office. I’d know whether Mitt really cares about those he works with, whether Barack can really use his giant brain for practical purposes.

On the other hand, as the forum showed me, I’d probably have a much harder time making up my mind between the two.

I’ve known one of the candidates, Tedd White, since we were teenagers if not longer. His father and grandfather were farmers before him down the road, fixtures in the town and in my youth. I watched his sons grow up.

I’ve known the other candidate, Lark Thwing, for at least 20 years. His late parents were dear friends to me and to just about everybody else in town. And Lark and his wife Beth have become friends as well since they retired to live in the town. (Like me, Lark spent every childhood summer in Hawley.)

Also present at the candidates forum: a stuffed cow. (I have no idea why.)

We don’t usually have multiple candidates for positions in Hawley. In fact, we frequently have no candidates at all. Hawley is generally a sleepy little town. That sleepy little town is at a crossroad just now, however, so everything to do with its government is a little abnormal.

The problems all started with Hurricane Irene. Last summer shortly after the hurricane I wrote an essay about the many ways in which Irene seemed to have brought our town together. I was optimistic about the future.

Unfortunately, the aftermath of the hurricane divided the town. The controversy revolved around river cleanup.

Most of our part of Hawley runs along the Chickley River. The river suffered hugely during the storm, destroying large chunks of the road and gushing onto people’s lawns and fields. We were lucky no one was hurt and not too much property was destroyed.

After the flood, the town, the state, and the National Guard set to work repairing the roads. Fixing the river was trickier. The selectmen wanted to clean up the river, which was filled with debris, and to re-route it in spots to help prevent future flooding.

One of the selectmen in particular had been longing to work on the river for years (he loves to go out and play with his machinery!) and saw the emergency as a chance to fulfill his dream.

The selectmen had trouble persuading federal and state officials to tell them how much aid (if any) the town might be able to obtain for river cleanup. Worried that snow would fall before they learned about funding, they decided to start the work as quickly as possible and trust to their political connections to secure reimbursement later.

The selectmen received a temporary emergency permit to work in the river. The work they spearheaded became controversial almost immediately, however, as it went beyond what many Hawleyites had envisioned.

Concerned citizens, the town conservation commission, the state department of environmental protection, and odds and ends of groups including a conservation organization called Trout Unlimited protested the scope and efficacy of the work. The state eventually issued a stop-work order.

Personalities flared, and two major factions developed in town. One viewed the selectmen as absolute heroes and berated those who had brought “outsiders” in to interfere with town business. The other maintained that the selectmen had vastly, even dangerously, exceeded their mandate. Each group argued that the other was involving the town in potential expense and litigation.

The worst part of it all, from my point of view, was that much of the time neither side could quite bring itself to believe that the other was acting in good faith.

The crisis was exacerbated by the fact that two of our three selectmen were gravely ill and therefore not working at their peak. One, our honored selectboard chair Darwin Clark, died in the middle of March.

Darwin had lived in Hawley all of his life. He attended one of the town’s last one-room schools in his youth and spoke with an accent that was specific to the town. A dairy farmer, he was what my father used to call a “country slicker”—a rural dweller who was razor sharp about local matters.

Unfortunately, Darwin’s illness over the last year meant that the town could not draw on his experience and wisdom very much during the river crisis. It is his seat on the board that Tedd and Lark aspire to fill.

I listened attentively to the candidates Monday night. Both spoke with civility and eloquence. They clearly have different visions of the town’s future.

Tedd talked about his training as a decision maker and pledged to work to lower taxes (an admirable hope but in my opinion a doomed one). He also reminded us of his family’s long-standing ties to Hawley, ties people in town value.

Lark spoke of building consensus, of improving communication among townspeople. He touched on his history of bringing people together at work and in volunteer organizations.

Both candidates come from families with a history of civic involvement. Both have supporters and signs all over our little hamlet.

Lark’s signs are colorful and straightforward. Tedd’s signs are plain but a little catchier in their wording, which mostly refers to his dairy farm. One promises that he will “work for the town until the cows come home.” Another says he “won’t milk the taxpayers dry.” My favorite appears at the bottom of this essay.

Both these men are neighbors so I know that they love Hawley and that they are generous and competent. I don’t agree with both of them all the time. I do think either of them would make a hardworking, likeable selectman. Would that our presidential choice were this difficult!

I plan to vote for Lark Thwing on Election Day next week. I think his flexibility, his desire to include more people in town affairs, and his cautious neutrality on the river issue will stand him (and the town) in good stead if he becomes our selectman.

Nevertheless, I wish I could vote for both candidates. And I hope with all my heart that whoever wins will help us find a way to heal the divisions in our town.

My favorite campaign sign of the season. Eat your hearts out, Barack and Mitt!