Monday, February 6, 2017

Basic roads to democracy

I've spent most of the day participating in democracy at a fundamental level. Together with the Son-In-Law [S-I-L], I was at the township board meeting this morning, followed by the Roads and Bridges Committee meeting. All in all, we were there for about five and one half hours. Point number one, democracy, as currently practiced, isn't really for those who have to make a living with a day job.

We were there because we had picked up on rumors that the powers that be in the township might be contemplating paving our gravel road, although an email to the town clerk did not shed any light on the situation. Point number two, transparency is not the strongest characteristic in township governance, not due to intent but more to lack of well documented, standardized best practices.

a candidate for paving?
a candidate for paving?
Photo by J. Harrington

A listing of proposed projects had apparently included paving our road because some of the residents had complained about road dust and the deterioration due to traffic. We, as residents, had only stumbled across the possibility of a major change in the character of our property. There had been no real notice and S-I-L and I had driven across the traffic counter tubes on the way to our meetings, so there was no real data to justify the proposed "upgrade" from gravel to bituminous. Our concern is that such an upgrade would result in more traffic, traveling faster than on our sometimes washboarded gravel road. Point number three, township government sometimes puts carts before horses and doesn't always look carefully at unintended consequences.

The was extensive time spent considering whether the last year's budgeted but unexpended funds were to be carried over by individual line item or should revert to a pool, to be allocated along with any new funds required to address the proposed budgeted priorities for this upcoming year. The Road and Bridge fund fails to distinguish between capital improvements and maintenance expenditures, further complicating rational discussion and priority setting. Point number four, state government has provided a uniform chart of accounts and financial reporting standards for township governments to follow. A greatly simplified version may be called for. The level of detail appropriate for a township appears to be much less than for a larger, more complex city. A simplified course in project-based budgeting, and how it relates to required financial reporting, might be of great assistance to township boards and staff.

In the end, I volunteered to reformat some of the information we had all been trying to process. I ended up feeling as though I had not only been heard, but listened to. I think some of the points I raised, plus those by S-I-L, had some effect on how future budgets will be set and projects prioritized. It was certainly very different than the reports I read on how things are often handled in Washington, D.C. these days. Locally, we all seemed to be trying to find a common way to understand and talk about the same set of facts, even if we were calling them by different names or weighing their importance differently. How do we find a way to bring this to our state and national capitals?

The Road and the End

By Carl Sandburg

I shall foot it
Down the roadway in the dusk,
Where shapes of hunger wander
And the fugitives of pain go by.

I shall foot it
In the silence of the morning,
See the night slur into dawn,
Hear the slow great winds arise
Where tall trees flank the way
And shoulder toward the sky.

The broken boulders by the road
Shall not commemorate my ruin.
Regret shall be the gravel under foot.
I shall watch for
Slim birds swift of wing
That go where wind and ranks of thunder
Drive the wild processionals of rain.

The dust of the travelled road
Shall touch my hands and face.

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Please be kind to each other while you can.