Saturday, July 18, 2009

Alna Voters Pick Peace Over Informed Consent

Like a family fatigued by anger, distrust and blame, some 100 of Alna's 600 or so citizens voted Wednesday night to give a piece of town-owned property to the not-for-profit fire department.

Weeks of accusation and finger pointing followed decades of occasional eruptions of rancor between fire fighters and the town's representatives. Stretching back to the 1970s, Alna townspeople and rescue volunteers have struggled with consensus.

The presumed villain in this latest mini-drama chapter, an epic production devoted to the internecine struggles familiar to any student of small town dynamics, was played by the newest selectman, Tom Smith. Smith is a politically conservative computer expert originally from Boothbay. The new selectman came upon a document--the backstory on his discovery could prove interesting, or not--that showed a March town meeting warrant to be in error.

After years of wrangling over how much the town would put up for a new fire station, this past March voters approved almost unanimously an article to provide the funds for a scaled down version of the station and allow the use of an anonymous donor's funds. This article also said that the fire department would "maintain ownership" of the property.

Herein lay the problem, since the document Smith turned up, the most recent deed describing the fire station property, clearly showed that the town, not the fire department, owned the property.

Now in a world with no hurt feelings, no pettiness and no passive aggression, representatives of the fire department and the town might have met to sort out the paperwork. Smith's contention that the town might be better off keeping the property, though ostensibly moot since the town had acceded to the fire department's wishes early in the year, might have gotten a fair hearing. Documents supporting the fire department's desire to own the property--as opposed to the emotional and fiscally inconsequential reasons given at Wednesday's meeting--might have received a fair review by citizens, attorneys and officials alike.

Frankly, it is the dearth of documents that ought to irk citizens in this chapter of As Alna Turns. The voters deserve to see whether or not either party's claims about insurance expense have any paper trail at all.

Voters also need to parse the origin of both parties' information. Knowing whether legal information comes from a trial lawyer, the Maine Municipal Association or a more neutral and perhaps experienced party makes a difference.

This story is far from over. The simmering mistrust was palpable even at the Alna Store Thursday morning. Owners Mike and Amy Preston said there were neighbors who failed to even acknowledge each other while they nursed their coffee and eggs.

Like a sulky family after a big blowout, townspeople will probably pout for a bit. Even while the peacemakers hold sway, though, the tension will build until another catalyst causes us to revisit the matter of how to govern ourselves in a small town. Let us hope that next time we patiently wait for the real problem to emerge, gaze squarely at the elephant in the room and address its grey, wrinkled skin, zooey smell, reluctance to move and potential to really wreck the place, before we turn away and agree that the curtains could use updating.

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