Fri, 11/21/2014 - 2:33pm


t has been a golden fall, one of more color than I remember, hues lingering well into November. It has been there along the roadsides, on the hills, not only in the usual isolated — and known — locations. Like Lowell’s rarest June day, it “may be had by the poorest comer.”

Today, though, it is raining. Over my shoulder the window facing the front yard holds a view of on-coming winter, nearly bare branches blurred by glass coated with salt, dust and the spattering of rain fallen from another direction.

A decade or more ago when I was immersed in government much of what was in the weekly paper did not come as a surprise. Now, I do not attend meetings with any regularity, and while I read almost weekly accountings of strife-filled sessions last week’s report of two resignations from the Health Services Board came as news. As much as I love the word “kerfuffle” and find it often an apt — perhaps leveling — description of local squabbles, this is the Medical Center and the term is far too light to describe the on-going difficulties on Payne Road.

Searching for a two- or three-year old editorial, I found instead one from 2005 which illustrated the same point. It termed turmoil at the Medical Center “eerily reminiscent” of a 1996 upheaval. It also asked the question “How did things get so bad?”

In another search, not in the on-line archive of the Block Island Times rather in my old desk, I found a long unread copy of a 1977 address delivered by then Second Warden William Stringfellow to an annual BIRA meeting. This was a man of God and of the world, a graduate of Harvard law who had lived and worked in Harlem when he was younger, a lay theologian who had walked the walk, a true advocate of peace and justice when that could be a dangerous place.

Parts of his address are very specific to the time, problems that are long in the past, but overall it is strange to realized his words were written 37 years ago. Bill Stringfellow spoke of his less than year’s time on the Town Council: “on the mainland... participatory and representative government responsive to human life and responsible to human beings has been gravely, perhaps finally, jeopardized...” by a laundry list of ills, among them “overproduction of useless, harmful, synthetic and ecologically stupid goods.”

He was a theologian, a lawyer and a writer; words were his stock in trade.

“On Block Island, I thought, things have been and can be different.”

“I subscribe still to this view. I think the effort to have here in the Town of New Shoreham a government which is viable is significant, not only for this Island, but for this country, because human discernment needs an exception like Block Island to behold the truth about American society as a whole. But I confess to you that I seriously underestimated the condition of this place and the Byzantine character – the esoteric and complex reality – of its politics and its government.

“I have learned the hard way.”

I am reminded that even then I thought for all his knowledge and experience he seemed to approach his office with an idealism bordering on the naïve. Nonetheless, things are different, today. This man, frail of body but great in spirit, always credited his colleagues but he made irreversible inroads toward opening government during his short tenure.

The very structure of town governance has since changed with the charter revision; whether or not we had undone or merely relocated – and lessened - the systemic problems of which Bill spoke so long ago remains to some minds uncertain. Today, information is more accessible to the general public by law but more by a non-governmental mode we take for granted but did not exist in 1977, a weekly year-round newspaper.

So back to the recent resignations I learned of from the paper and what seems to be a less than hidden undercurrent – more a rushing river — of discord that doomed the recent bond question.

Perhaps we all need go back and revisit these words from 1977: “...I say there is a distinction between being opponents and being enemies, and that Islanders of all sorts can disagree, debate, oppose one another on specific issues without rancor or spite, if public debates are conducted with access to and respect for the facts, if untainted by conflicts of interest, if participants forebear to transpose issues into personalities...”

From the easy perspective of outside the time leading up to the vote on the medical facility borrowing seemed more about cacophony than facts, more about personalities than issues. I would like to think people were seriously evaluating the impact of the expense, not in legal ceilings but in real impact, but I heard too many times “1.25 million for the Doctor’s House?!” a horrifying concept, had it been true; one needed only read the paper to know it was not.

The Council, to its credit, has had a reasoned, measured response to the defeat. Turn the page and move forward is sometimes the only real option and they appear to be taking it.

Still, not so long ago many of us received yet another survey from another town committee, one which seemed focused on the much discussed need for recreational facilities. I dutifully responded but now I am wondering, have we already forgotten the doctor we have had for so very long is leaving? Have our attention spans become so short we have moved on to other things?

A Council colleague once reminded us of his seven year old’s counsel: “Dad, focus!” It is the Council’s job to lead but we cannot forget we are all stakeholders, we all need heed that sage advice.