Friday, November 17, 2006
What now for Banta-Davis?
The Town Election is over, but the task remains to tease out the reasons why the Banta-Davis recreation plan failed. Of the votes cast on Question 1 to expand recreational facilities on the Banta-Davis land, 52% opposed, while 48% favored the project. (Question 2, converting one multi-purpose playing field to artificial turf, failed with 66% opposed.)
This is the fourth time residents have voted on the project this year. While a majority favored the plan at Town Meeting on October 30, it fell two votes shy of the required 2/3 majority. Last spring Town Meeting approved a similar plan with a 2/3 majority, but the subsequent ballot question failed by 11 votes.
What is the difference between these votes? The November 7 ballot was the best sample of public opinion, since over eight times as many people voted in the Town Election as voted at Town Meetings this year. Over 70% of the town's registered voters cast ballots. Last spring's Town Election drew less than half as many participants.
Is the idea of building more playing fields good or bad? All four votes show that a lot of people do want more athletic facilities in town, but not enough liked the packages offered. The proposal offered this fall included building three grass playing fields, four tennis courts, pathways, parking and a pavilion at a cost of $1,594,800, with a separate option to convert one playing field to artificial turf for an additional $578,600.
The roughly $2.2 million requested may be small change compared to looming school expansion projects, but voters might have shown stronger support if they had had a better understanding of the recreation project's costs.
For instance, why did the price rise so much over the years? Back in 1998, Phase 1 of the Banta-Davis recreation project passed easily, garnering over 2/3 majority at both Town Meeting and the polls. The $577,000 authorized back then was used to build three playing fields and a running track, and included site preparation for two more playing fields to be constructed later. Did this site preparation reduce the 2006 price for playing field construction at all?
According to the May 1, 1998, Mosquito, suggestions made then by the Recreation Commission (RecCom) for later facilities included: construction of a basketball court, water fountains, field house and lavatories at an estimated cost of $107,400; and later construction of a soccer field, baseball field and irrigation for $92,300. Eight years later, the cost of completing the athletic facilities jumped to over $2 million. Project modifications would explain part of the price hike. Inflation over eight years might double the costs. Perhaps the old estimates were unusually low? Are there other reasons why the price of the project rose by a factor of 10?
I think many children and adults would use new playing fields and paths, and I hope the RecCom will crunch the numbers and bring another proposal for Banta-Davis before the town in the near future. A less ambitious, less expensive project would probably find greater support with voters.
With both the midterm elections and the Special Town Meeting behind us, it seems an opportune time to reflect on the state of our public discourse. Some commentators have cited the defeat of gubernatorial candidate Kerry Healey and the termination of radio talk show host John DePetro as evidence that the pendulum is beginning to swing away from toxic negative discourse, and toward a more thoughtful and respectful approach. In Healey's case, the suggestion is that voters rejected her candidacy in protest over her persistent negative commercials. In DePetro's case, the suggestion is that his employer expressed its unwillingness to tolerate his use of a derogatory slur to describe another gubernatorial candidate.
I'm not so sure. It seems at least possible that Lieutenant Governor Healey would have lost to Governor-elect Patrick even with a more positive campaign, and that DePetro's termination was due as much to sagging ratings as to concern over intemperate remarks (after all, his remark, though worthy of criticism, hardly seems outside the norm of comments routinely uttered by other radio personalities who continue to work for the same station).
What is clear is that the phenomenon of incivility is not limited to the big city. Earlier this fall, concerns over a rash of departures by teachers from the Carlisle School led to sharp criticism of the Superintendent, culminating in an anonymous mailing to members of the Board of Selectmen and School Committee criticizing her performance. As Election Day approached, the Mosquito reported the disturbing news that lawn signs supporting various political candidates had been vandalized.
There is an inherent tension in our discussion of public matters. Our democratic system anticipates — indeed assumes — that diverse perspectives, fueled by divergent interests, will compete for acceptance by the majority. Failing wholesale acceptance of particular perspectives, the goal is to find some compromises that majorities are willing to accept. The subjects of our public dialogue are by their nature matters of some importance to our families and communities, and they accordingly generate in us a certain healthy degree of passion. Unfortunately, that passion threatens on occasion to obscure our awareness of the fact that those who disagree with us do so for reasons they consider valid, and not because they are nitwits or fools.
The challenge of effective public discourse is to maintain respect for opposing views even while working to defeat them. Without respect for the opposition, advocates are prone to dismissive or even derisive descriptions of it, igniting anger in the targets of their disrespect. That anger, in turn, tempts responses in kind, and the cycle continues — or escalates.
The rationale for civility is based not merely in good manners, but in pragmatism. The principles of democracy rely on a dialogue among competing ideas, with the expectation that the exchange will educate and inform participants, while refining their proposals. When one approach cannot dominate, compromise is necessary. But "scorched earth" rhetoric and tactics stifle consideration of the possible merit to be found in competing views, while injuring the civil bonds that facilitate compromise and accommodation.
As we put the past election season behind us and, more importantly, as we look ahead to future seasons, let us hope that we have indeed begun to reject the politics of negativity and disrespect and replace them with the productive and respectful dialogue on which our democracy depends.
© 2006 The