Some say small-town politics are more vicious than the big-city variety because the stakes are so small. They can be vicious, that’s for sure. But the stakes aren’t small for people who live here and pay the bills, and my limited involvement in local politics has been a chance to connect with life-long residents who feel pressured by rising taxes and by an economy that is too dependent on tourists and second-home owners.

Great Barrington and other towns in the Berkshires benefit, though, from a highly educated influx of people who want not only to make their home here but to become part of the community. They join the selectboard, the school and finance committees, even the planning board. It’s wonderful. The weird part is that all too often after joining one of these boards or committees they drink the town-hall koolaid. They become the man. They stop questioning authority (or using their Harvard degrees to analyze the numbers) and start parroting the bureaucrats from Boston.

Part of the good life for me is being part of a small-town community, but it hasn’t turned out to be quite the cozy experience I imagined. This post is the first of a series in which I’ll introduce you to Great Barrington, not as it’s been written up in Smithsonian magazine but the far more interesting real-life, 21st-century community I know, love, and want to see prosper.

Speak Out, or Watch Out?

I’ve often been puzzled by the local School Committee (as the elected school board is called in Massachusetts), but never more than today, as they launch a series of public meetings called “speak out” sessions.

The meetings aren’t a surprise, after the defeat by voters in Great Barrington, the district’s larger town, of a carefully conceived and expensively presented proposal to renovate the regional high school. The defeat was a surprise to everyone. There was no organized opposition, and the town boards had voted in favor, but the $56-million renovation plan was shot down 2-1.

What puzzles me is that the “facilitator” of these meetings, Karen W. Smith, is the not the first person I would choose “to listen to the community members about concerns, questions, and issues that they have” or to ensure that “answers given only after the community members have all had a chance to speak.”

Karen is one of my favorite people in Great Barrington. She’s a genuine local character, known throughout the area for her big voice and strong opinions. I’ve known her since I came here from London in 1992, a single mother with two small children. I used an office on Main Street downstairs from her insurance office, and I bought a life insurance policy from her that is only now expiring. I’ve bought car and business insurance and got good advice and service from her over the years. For years she organized a golf tournament to raise funds for needy families, and she’s always shown an interest in our local schools.

But a diplomat she is not. Everyone in my office knows her booming voice from the days when she was our insurance agent and would call to demand some new piece of information. I often responded to her phone messages with email and would ask her to email me back, but she did things her way. It got so no one wanted to answer the phone when she was on a tear about a new policy. “It’s not yelling,” I’d tell my staff, “that’s just her manner. She talks like that to everyone.”

“She’s the Chris Christie of local politics,” someone said the other day, “who thinks she can bully people into doing what she thinks is right.”

It’s true that when I was on the School Committee and on the other side of a controversial issue, she came to a meeting and denounced me. There wasn’t much nuance to it, and not much “listening.” She has a good heart, but with Karen everything’s black and white. You’re with us or against us. You either care about kids and education (and therefore vote “yes”), or you don’t.

Maybe, I thought, she’s mellowed. But I couldn’t see any sign of mellowing the evening she went after the School Committee, saying that they’d lost because they had expected people to come to the mountain instead of the mountain going to them. (This had a certain rhetoric flourish because the meeting was held in the high school, which is in fact on a mountain north of town.)

The press release for the “speak-outs” promises that the school project advocates won’t speak till citizens have their turn. Unfortunately, anyone who knows Karen Smith will imagine that it’s a chance for her to knock a few heads together and make it clear that anyone who cares about children – get that? – will do the right thing next time and vote for the proposal.

What I think likely – given that the Massachusetts department pushing the defeated project has encouraged the School Committee to try to get it through again unchanged – is that the “speak-outs” will be used to bludgeon voters. “We gave you a chance to present your views and you didn’t do it then, on our terms, so why should you be heard anywhere else?” Critics of the powers-that-be are not always welcome, and I know all too many people – intelligent, thoughtful, professionally qualified people – who don’t want to become a “lightning rod.” When I was in opposition to the rest of the school committee, things got quite extreme: I had a local reporter ask who I had starting my car. “This isn’t New Jersey,” I said, “Or Sicily.” (The reporter’s allusion was to The Godfather.)

And it isn’t. I’m not worried about starting my car or whether the police will respond when I call. There’s an advertisement you see a lot here that says, “Every Community Has At Least One Realtor Like Nancy Kalodner (In the Berkshires it’s Nancy Kalodner).” I’m glad we have Karen Smith in our community. We need her talents, her energy, and her voice. But the School Committee will have to do much more than hold these “speak-outs” to satisfy the voters of Great Barrington and the other towns, too, who said “no” so emphatically.

Image courtesy Flickr @sparetomato http://ow.ly/sR0wc