|Good morning! Welcome to the 54th Annual Town
Officers Educational Conference. Im Deborah Markowitz, Secretary of State, and
this is my first Town Officer Educational Conference as Secretary. I am, of course, not
new to TOECs or town officer education, and Im proud to say I know many of you and
count myself fortunate in regarding you as my friends. Its not easy to take a new
job and be expected to know everything on the first day. I hope I can count on you to help
me see and do my duty, and I promise you, you will never be ignored if you have any
question or criticism of my office. Because I accept the full responsibility for serving
as your resource in Montpelier. |
Were here today for all the
best reasonsto learn, to talk to others about how we do our jobs, to tell some of
the speakers theyre wrong, but overall because we care about the quality of the work
that is done in local office.
That youre here today tells me something about you: that you
appreciate the complexity of the law and understand that it doesnt stay the same
year to year; that you are committed to improving the services you provide to your
community; that not everything can be learned on-the-job, and that others can teach you
(and you can teach others) skills needed to survive in local office and excel in the
business of local governance.
Governance is tough. Americans, Vermonters, members of your towns, hate
to be governed, thats one of the basic tenets of our systemthey hate taxes,
they hate rules, and they love to make fun of government. Because its so easy to do.
Every coffee shop in this county this morning laughed at governments
expensewhat the legislature did yesterday, what some Washington politician said on
the news last night, what went on at the zoning board. Whats orange and sleeps six?
A state highway truck. Its so easy and its so much fun. Its not fair,
but its fun.
Of course, other than local government, where is the government? You
almost never see a federal official. You dont get to count post office employees any
more; that is hardly a federal agency. You see them when theres been a flood or
other natural disaster; you hear about them during elections, or when theres
something happening in Washington that captures our interest (or not) like an impeachment,
but even though this is a federal system and were all part of the United States of
America, youd never know it by looking.
State officials are a little more obvious, in those orange trucks, or
green cars with the lights on the top, but still with a part time legislature and a small
work force in Montpelier, you could almost miss the presence of the state, at least in
person. We all love Ray Burke, of course, who gives us the report on the highway
conditions, and we saw our state representatives at town meeting, but in Vermont, with
virtually no county government, no very obvious regional government, government means the
select board, the clerk, the listers, and other officers.
You carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Residents blame you
for bad roads in mud season, as if nature had nothing to do with it. They blame you for
the increase in the county or union school budgets, for what the legislature did or
didnt do last year. From you they expect miracles. Make the next door
neighbors dog stop barking. Make my children smarter than tacks. Make crime
disappear, at least from my door. Guarantee that nothing will ever change, except to make
my life better.
Get real, we need to say to them: some things are beyond anyones
control. Government is a system. It does its thing. It deliversa permit, a ballot, a
tax bill, a grader to a washout, a grand listbecause thats its duty. It does
what the law expects it to do, the way the law says it should be done. It cant do
everything, and it would fail if it tried.
The law: we say the law, like it a living person, but the law is not a
person or even a book. Its even more than a set of books: its a rule, and
another rule, and another after that, enacted by Congress, or the state legislature, or
the select board, and somehow it all fits together. No one person, of course, knows
all the law there is: its more a process of looking it up when you need to know it.
Thats why these seminars are held. To alert us to the basics of the lawhow to
do what is expected of us.
The law has its own pecking order, in reverse order to the presence of
the governments in our lives. The federal constitution and federal law are at the top of
the pyramid, with overarching authority over state and local law. State law trumps local
law, and towns, at the bottom of the legal pyramid, have to bow to all higher law.
This is the tough position towns find themselves in, with all the
problems, the heavy end of the cost, and with authority dependent on the state legislature
and federal government. This creates an extraordinary tension, and I think ultimately more
frustration than needed, when we can see solutions to problems but cant convince the
legislature or congress to enact them.
The congress legislates for all the states. The legislature enacts laws
for all towns and cities. But in Townshend or Corinth or Franklin, there are unique
problems that dont fit into the statutory framework and no local authority to
address them. Thats the great weakness of our system. The legislature looks out over
the multi-colored quilt of Vermont and makes law that fits some communities. It
cant fit everything. No law works well for Colchester and Morgan, Pownal and
Hartford, Canaan and Rutland. In a sense, there is no "Vermont," but rather a
diverse range of communities, with different needs and different resources.
The extraordinary power of the Vermont community to resolve problems in
spite of that lack of authority is a daily reminder of the preemptive power of local
control. We make do. We end run. We invent sometime to get us through the crisis. We wait
and see. We dont wait until the legislature gets around to finding a solution, and
we dont rely too much on Montpelier or Washington to solve our problems.
All of the best ideas for changing Vermont law come from local
experience. Town charters are among the richest sources of new general municipal law. When
you travel to Montpelier to testify, they listen.
Why then are we not living in paradise? In many ways the law
doesnt solve the problems of local government: problems of personality conflict,
problems of traditions that have outlined their usefulness (or still prove workable, but
are resisted), problems of a lack of resources, of deciding what constitutes right and
The state legislature has given the zoning board the standards to use in
rendering a decision, but the board is very much alone in deciding the case. The law
doesnt help when the question is whether this applicant should have a permit, when
we denied one like it last year to somebody else. Or when the applicant is a perfect jerk,
and offends everybody he meets. Or when the room is full of unhappy opponents, who
dont understand that the board is obliged to grant a permit if the standards are
met, even if a lot of people dislike the outcome.
Unfortunately, the law doesnt help when
theres a problem of a conflict of interest either. Precisely when you should step
down is not clear, and it ought to be. Clearer laws, better laws can help, but while this
is a nation and state of laws, experience is the life of the law, and how officers do
their jobs is often as important as what they do.
How do you like living on the stage, with the bright
lights on, and people watching your every move? More meetings are being broadcast on
public access channels. Minutes are published on the net in some communities. As people
see what goes on in local government, perhaps they begin to see how tough it really is,
but that doesnt make it easier for you. Everybody in Vermont is a closet highway
engineer, believing they have the answer on how to direct traffic through town or
recalibrate a set of lights. So too everybody thinks they know what their town should do
with its biggest challenges. As town officers, having 43 people looking over your shoulder
and telling you what you should do, you understand democracy better than anybody else.
Its not easy to be a local officer. You know that better than I.
If you do your job right you will make people unhappy. If you try make people happy, you
wont be always able to do it and follow the law. Here, pay this tax. Here, apply for
this permit. Here, you didnt qualify for a permit. Should you have to apologize for
doing your job? Of course not.
It isnt personal! We need to convey that message to the public.
This is a system. Its done this way everywhere else. The law requires it. There is
no local option to avoid tax foreclosure or enforcing the zoning laws or the speed limits.
We cant exempt ourselves from Act 250 or Act 60. We are here to do what the
legislature has told us to do.
We arent machines. We arent computers. We make mistakes. We
have to back up and do it over, to make it right. Thats no problem. It gets worked
Thats what makes local government so effective. First of all,
its not the federal government or the state government, its local. The
taxpayers know where you live. They recognize you on the street. Theres no hiding,
no secrets, no need for a special prosecutor. More importantly, the taxpayers know where
their money is going. The road out front just got graded. Theres a new culvert going
in on the center road. Thats the fire truck.
Thats our fire truck, its own town. We
personalize it, because we are a part of it. Town pride is a terrific glue that holds
everything together. You see it at its best at town meeting, at the finals of the high
school basketball team or in the feeling that comes after a good old-fashioned Fourth of
Town pride brings you here today, because you believe in doing the best
you can for the town, and thats great. Expect to be tired by the end of these four
lectures. Learning is hard work. If you can take even one good idea home with you today,
this day will have been worth it.
Have a great day.