Monday, January 22, 2007

Our Towns
or Your Skin and Your Teeth.
ocal government is generally pretty corrupt. Just like in “The Cradle Will Rock” everyone knows someone who can benefit from contracts being given out or lax enforcement* or some other official act of town government being tweaked or twisted to favor those with connections. The newspaper publisher, if the town is lucky to get news coverage of any kind, is part of the establishment so residents aren’t informed until that can’t be avoided. Since community service is no longer required of radio and TV stations they don’t even enter into the picture anymore. Residents are generally kept ignorant or presented with details in a town report that are hard to follow or sketchy and which come far too late for them to do much about it. Think of the often gaudy corruption of a big city government only spread out over a larger area. That is minus the media coverage.

What happens when the residents become aware of something shady in their town government can be interesting. My brother gave me a piece that was in the November 23rd, 2006 edition of the Norway (Maine) Advertiser Democrat in the column Not So Good Old Days. The un-attributed column mostly quotes from a letter written by Mrs. Cora M. W. Greenleaf, printed in the paper June 30, 1911.

The Case of Mrs Hefferin” concerned the semi-covert plans of the town council to sell the body of a well-beloved lady of the town. After a life of generosity and doing for others, Mrs. Lucy J. Hefferin fell on hard times in her advanced old age. In her last illness some neighbors took her in but needed help paying for expenses of nursing and other things. The town granted them two dollars a week until, poor Mrs. Hefferin being entirely dependent by that time, her nursing care required four dollars a week. When the woman died the town fathers, as they were most paternalistically called back then, got together and decided that someone good should come out of it. As the letter put it, towns in Maine could “legally sell the bodies of their pauper dead, through the efforts of the town where the above had a residence and dispose of the body to some institution for dissection”.

The townspeople caught wind when the town officials “entered on negotiations for a more profitable disposal of the body,” than a pauper’s grave. Mentioning another local case in which a medical student was shocked to find that he knew the cadaver he’d been assigned to dissect, his college had bought it from a neighboring town for $36, the writer goes right to the heart of the matter,

Now what was done with that money? Who got it? I’ve never known of any mention being made of it in any town report, is it a perquisite of the selectmen’s, one of the ‘pickings’ that go with the office?”

A good question. I wonder if anyone answered it. Questions like that to town officials generally go unanswered, in my experience. It’s too hard to force an answer. They can count on that. From a lifetime of seeing how this kind of thing works, the reason for money’s absence from the town’s annual report probably was along the lines alluded to.

Mrs. Greenleaf, no doubt answering a point of the kind often made to change the subject in those fabled town meetings, asks why the town officials don’t benefit society by selling their own corpses and those of their loved ones if it’s such a good idea. I think I’d have liked her.

The romantic view of local government and small business is part of the mythology of conservatives. They are always gassing on about the virtues of both. Anyone with a passing knowledge of either knows it's just gas. There are virtuous town officials, I’ve known several, and there are honest small businessmen but generally it’s a pretty dismal matter of petty corruption and nonfeasance.

In a lot of places during the recent real estate mania the corruption has been awful. Even relatively small developers have financial resources that make countering their ability to get around rules almost impossible in most cases. I’ve always wished someone would study the per capita occurrence of corruption in the various levels of government, not in actual dollar amounts but in just the number of crimes. If anyone knows about a study like that, please let us know.

If you think that there isn’t a modern equivalent of the story from 1911 you are wrong. Georgia, New Hampshire, New York City, now-a- days it is as likely to be local officials looking the other way when a crematorium or mortician goes bad. Is it any wonder that after writing “Our Town” Thornton Wilder might have felt it necessary to write “By the Skin of Our Teeth,” as a corrective?

What happened to poor Mrs. Hefferin’s body? The people in the town took out a subscription to pay for a funeral and a grave. It isn’t mentioned if any of the selectmen contributed.

* Lax enforcement of zoning and land use laws is epidemic in small towns and big ones. The zoning boards and other officials are often either business partners of local developers or attached in some other way. Similar things can often be said of other parts of local governments and school systems. The things that developers get away with under the law is nothing less than legalized theft. In discussing this with several people who are active in local affairs, none of us could come up with a town without something that looked shady going on.

Having sat through them for many years I’m sorry to have to report to you that, due to ignorance, non-participation and outright rigging, Town Meeting is another part of the romantic myth.

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