By "commune", I don't mean the the ideal of the commune (ie. a kibbutz), that would be a dream. In this case, I mean the goings-on of the local affairs of the town of South Portland, ie. the commune in the French administrative-division sense of the word, rather than the ideological sense. The concept is that these goings-on are local, these are communal (as opposed to statewide or national). In a way, the ideal commune depends on an emphasis on localised government, while being in harmony with other communes. Several incidents occurred in the commune of South Portland; they inspired this post, yes, my fourth post in a day.
It is rather like seeing the local society in action. Local government issues I hear, are quite feisty over in Portland, but ah, we'll see some local democracy here! If only the local constituencies in Singapore were anything like this, rather than town councils which never even use referendums. Some people seem to think that localised democracy on a municipal level is not appropriate for "Asian culture", but I will say otherwise, because it seems completely ungrounded. Why totalitarian democracy and not true participatory democracy?
Some issues are quite passionate; some are quite amusing. The amusing ones in particular aren't so much a government issue in itself, then a reflection of the local environment, a humourous one. One happens to involve a friend.
Self-prescribed "environmental" developer buys a plot of land with boundaries around a marsh. It is a private transction - the previous owner sold it and was allowed to sell it, it was not publicly protected - at least not then, at least not now. He announces his intention to "enhance it", by slightly developing around the edges, attempting to keep the ecosystem intact. Oh really, some question his intent. Are you really environmental at all, question a flurry of forum letters to the local newspaper (note not the Portland Press Herald - the local newspaper of Cape Elizabeth and Sourth Portland, The Sentry) ? Why not resell it to a local non-profit environmental organisation who would be eager to preserve it? Perhaps the local Historical Society or the Environmental Corps? No, rebut some others - if they were truly concerned they would have bought it first. Private property rights. And are they even willing to buy the property? Of course, they have already written in expressing their lamentation, comes the response. Why then haven't these organisations made any aggressive offers? Without any concrete gestures what do you expect the developer to do?
Don't develop the marsh! I take my children to walk about the marsh regularly, a letter writes (I paraphrase the sentiment); not just me, our neighbours and their children, our recreation - we've known the marsh for so long, the canoeing, the swimming, the ducks in the pond ... where will the wild animals go when the marsh is developed?
Pardon the conflation - visiting South Portlanders might know I've oversimplified the issue. I am not going to elaborate much on the issue here, just a curious observation of the debate, since I don't have a firm view on the development issue yet, and my blog isn't aimed at South Portlanders, though that might change eventually. All of this is taking place through very active local mediums.
All this passion - on either side - has brought many insights to me, and it is an interesting thing to read about, and perhaps participate it if the debate ever comes my way. This would not be something the PAP would seem to encourage, or some of the "Asian values" folks. No, they would encourage that a wiser government be allowed to carry out their plan without cynical hindrance from lesser citizens who know less. What an assumption.
The town hall meetings, usually almost empty (with a few journalists and a few citizens) when things are routine, are suddenly jam-packed each night. Then there's the whole issue of whether Fort Williams should charge parking fees, and another flurry of letters to the Sentry, another flurry of editorials to the local newspaper. Everyone should have a right to enjoy the beauty that is Fort Williams, an editorial generalises and paraphrases the views of the antifee faction. Yet, maintaining the park is expensive, and a burden of Cape Elizabethans. You citizens of Cape Elizabeth rejected it in a referendum last year, and are proud of your park; we appreciate your generosity, but remember, come taxpaying time it is you who will pay, and the maintainence costs will only increase. No, no! comes in a flurry of responses, and the Cape Elizabeth town hall meetings, too, are packed. Another letter questions, is a town hall meeting of 40-50 people representative of a town of 8000?
This issue affects me too - I'm a regular visitor of Fort Williams, if you have been reading my July and August posts. Yet, I walk by foot, so it affects me less, they want to charge five dollar a day parking fees, not entrance fees, but it will affect my family since they are less inclined to walk all the way. (And most people come by car.) Yet in Singapore, do we even see any local government issues being vehemently voiced in public meetings by 40-50 people, on a constituency level?
It so happened, that on September 11th today, as I stayed back, today with the half-mast flag and the school-mandated moment of silence, the late bus arrived late. For some reason, that generally never happens, the colloquially friendly (and rather protective: he will curse at motorists that horn at the schoolbus, when the schoolbus gets the legal right of way) bus driver didn't show up. 10. 20. 30 minutes. The cold which I mentioned earlier still lingers very evidently, but the sun is higher in the sky than when I waited for the bus this morning. I am being fried and frozen at the same time (ah, New England autumnal weather). Finally, a little minibus was arranged: this wasn't notable in itself except that in it I was inspired three times, namely about New England in particular.
Speeding through the (paved) access road through the woods, with one window open across me, the cool wind breezing through moderately the school bus, just enough to instigate a pensive air, without the malaise. It suddenly occurs to me, that yes, this is New England, after all these years, I am still in it, and I have been complaining and complaining, yearning and yearning for the past (especially since I am reminded about it on this date more than ever), but yes, I still love the place. The woods - like I used to wander in Cape Elizabeth so long ago.
A large wooden sign at the side of the road. It is clearly homemade but very neatly done, printing in bold red-painted letters: STOP THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE MARSH.
A public response issue - a public sign that calls out in protest. It is not in protest of a government action. It is not even a referendum issue. It is not at all like the paperboard posters they put up for the election candidates for local (in Town Hall) to federal representation (in Congress). This sign was inspired purely by the passionate debate that arose from the issue of what a man would choose to do with his newly acquired property. Private property rights are a fundamental given, yes - but it is more clear than ever that the solution, in a rather communalistic/libertarian-socialist way - is that the public can still have an effect on what a person does privately - in a very good way. The developer can probably ultimately do whatever he wants, but the threat of public censure also accommodates the externalities that will arise from his decision. To me, public censure (in Athenian democracy it existed in the form of that infamous ceremony ostracism) is a valuable participatorily democratic, libertarianly socialist, tool.
The bus that did not come apparently had a missing companion. While on the mini-bus (which happened to seat about 20 people, rather than the usual 60+ or more) , the radio could be heard quite clearly.
"Bus 21, could you pull over, I need to talk with you right now." [for what reason I have no idea, but it sounds quite urgent]
"Bus 17, you are cleared for entry." [gosh this sounds like an airport terminal]
But those are just routine things. Try:
"Bus nine, this is Base calling in. Can you confirm your status please, over."
[a few moments of silence]
"Bus nine? Are you there?"
[a minute of silence, our bus in particular continues breezing through the woods]
"Calling bus nine, what is your present position."
"Bus nine? Bus nine?!"
[some commentary from another driver]
"Uh, Sheila, I think I just passed him over there, to my right, over at Lincoln."
"Bus nine? Could you come in bus nine....!"
It sounded pretty ominous, perhaps 9/11 has an effect on bus drivers, or something. I did not know the conclusion, as well, I had to get down at my stop.
Some observations written for this post include late-night grocery shopping. An attempt to use up the month's reward points (as they do not seem to rollover) quickly before the next update, happened to invoke the purchase of several large tubs of ice cream. I happened to pass by Russell, a friend from South Portland High, who works at this particular Shaw's Supermarkets South Portland branch. At the register, the ice cream, along with some other things, are bagged and put in the cart, but as we make the final transaction ...
*beep* Card error. What do you mean card error? We enter it manually, we scan it multiple times, and in the end Russell is called to use the telephone to ask a senior staff member to come to the front to our aid. If that wasn't mortifying (there was a line behind us) ... he was also asked to announce the closure of the supermarket. "Say it is nine o' clock and the store is now closed!"
"Attention customners ... eeerrgh, it is now 6:00 and the store is now closed."
[a look of amazed silence]
[laughter all around]
"...okay, cut it, Sandra...it's not..." [realises he hasn't turn off the speakerphone]
At this point, I cannot hold it in, especially when I am rather familiar with the announcer! I'll be forgiven, I think. In regards to my own mortification, the senior staff member arrives soon after this debacle: resolution arrives with him within seconds with the tap of a few buttons. Thank goodness the ice cream didn't suffer much through all that wait.