FAIRHAVEN – Political change doesn’t come quickly – or easily – to Fairhaven.
Executive Secretary Jeffrey Osuch has handled the day-to-day affairs of this bucolic community for 23 years in a position that has an average tenure of only about 4 years.
In the last 12 years, only five people – all men – have served on the Board of Selectmen, and voters haven’t even had a choice of whom to elect to the town’s governing body for four years in a row, with the winner’s name being the only one on the ballot.
That might speak to a certain satisfaction among the electorate.
Running counter to its recent history, Fairhaven is now hurtling toward an election that could shake the bedrock of the stablest town government in SouthCoast. Three incumbents – including a three-term selectman – have decided not to seek re-election and this year’s ballot boasts seven contested races.
In addition, citizens’ groups are pushing town meeting articles to create an ethics committee and make it easier to oust town officials. They also are circulating petitions to create a charter commission to study and perhaps change the town’s form of government.
What’s going on?
Going back 20 years or so, the town has been bitterly divided on a series of proposals, most notably the mining of the landfill in the ’90s, various plans to develop a regional sludge plant and the recent uprising over the erection of a pair of wind turbines. A series of ad hoc opposition groups stopped the landfill work, blocked the sludge plants and continue to battle the turbines, although they have been unable to halt construction.
Those successes, however, haven’t translated into change at the highest political level.
Some of the same opposition names pop up in news coverage of those issues through the years. They’ve been augmented by an emerging, younger group of upstarts, many of whom were politicized by the battle over neighborhood schools.
“It’s a small group, very passionate, but it seems to be the same people in opposition no matter what’s being proposed,” said Brian Bowcock, who has served for 12 years as a selectman after 13 on the Finance Committee. “It’s a minority of people who speak loudly. They think that the more noise they make, it makes their numbers look better.”
Ann Ponichtera DeNardis, an attorney who lost to Bowcock in the 2007 selectman’s race, sees it much differently.
“There’s an absolute groundswell in that many people are recognizing the lack of transparency” in town government, she said. “They’re disappointed with the representation they are receiving at this time.”
A hint of arrogance?
Some folks say there’s a smugness – and maybe even a hint of arrogance – among the long-entrenched officials. And they certainly don’t lack confidence in their political dealings.
“I’m planning to run again for re-election (next year) and I wouldn’t be surprised if I was unopposed,” Bowcock said.
“It’s the most stable government in the area and it’s why our bond rating is the highest in the area. They consider us a stable and well-run community,” he said.
Selectman Michael Silvia, who, for “personal and family reasons” decided not to seek re-election after three terms on the board, said, “I think I still would have won” had he run again, although he conceded, “I would have had to sell myself to the voters. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Those in power see nothing inappropriate about the way the town conducts its business.
“There’s a misconception that everything is being done incorrectly or wrong,” Osuch said. “People don’t do a lot of research. They do a lot of perceiving of what they believe to be the facts.
“The opposition group is going to throw whatever they can against the wall, whether it’s factual or not. That’s what’s printed in the paper,” Osuch said. “People have to follow through. They can’t just raise an issue and think that because they raised it someone is going to solve it for them.”
“The majority? You don’t hear from them. They don’t write letters to the editor. And when they do, they’re vilified by the opposition group.”
So far, none of those opposition groups or individuals has taken aim at higher office since DeNardis’ bid five years ago.
Bowcock said: “Number 1, I don’t think they want to do the job and, number 2, a lot of them don’t have any idea how government works. It’s easier for them to stand outside and throw rocks than it is to really get involved.”
Sharon Anderson, who, along with her husband, Chris, cut her political teeth in the neighborhood school battle, said, “It’s hard to engage in the process. It’s a poor economy and this is a working-class town. Unless it’s in your face, you might not have the time to get involved.”
And, her husband said, it’s often an uphill battle.
“The people that are running the shop spend a good part of their day, a good part of their week paying attention to town affairs. They’ve definitely got an edge on the rest of the public,” Chris Anderson said.
“And so many of them have been doing it for so long that they’ve built up a lot of support. People wonder what’s the point of challenging them.”
But perceptions could be changing.
“This has been such a restless two years in Fairhaven and restlessness gets people involved,” Sharon Anderson said.
“Just getting a new person on the select board is a step in the right direction,” said Chris Anderson.
One reason DeNardis hasn’t run again is that she’s representing plaintiffs in a suit involving the wind turbines. “As an attorney representing people who are suing the town, I can’t do both,” she said.
But others can.
“There are a number of people running for different offices,” DeNardis said. “I hope the people who are elected can bring the type of change that’s in the best interests of the people being represented.
“People want to change the politics as usual,” she said. “There’s a commitment to change things. It’s been business as usual for far too long.”
Asked to define “business as usual,” DeNardis said, “When public notice is not given on major projects, that breeds mistrust in the community. When the Board of Health changes its meeting time, that breeds mistrust in the community. When the School Committee allows only three minutes for public rebuttal on controversial issues, that breeds mistrust in the community.”
changing the process
“I left the school process feeling disenfranchised,” Chris Anderson said. “I felt there were things going on in terms of how town officials were handling it that excluded people, excluded different viewpoints.”
But, rather than give up on the process, he’s working to change it.
“The idea is to get people involved,” he said, explaining why he started FairAction Fairhaven, a group represented by its Web site and an active Facebook page.
The group’s mission is “to promote transparent and fair politics in Fairhaven, address apparent conflicts of interest and advocate for checks and balances in the Fairhaven governing bodies and system. This is done through public education, legislative voice and action and political involvement.”
“My thing is that it’s not so much about the final decision but the process we take to get there,” Chris Anderson said.
There’s been talk about increasing the number of selectmen from three to five, but it’s just talk.
“I think it’s time to go to five,” DeNardis said. “It allows for more differences of opinion and a broader base of representation.”
But Bowcock doesn’t see the benefit.
“I think we work well with three,” he said. “There have been some discussions about increasing it to five, but the feeling is that it would just make for longer meetings and we wouldn’t get anything more accomplished.”
Right now one the board, “We look at things from different perspectives, we take other opinions into account,” Bowcock said. “We come to the table with different ideas, different backgrounds, and it all meshes together and works very well.”
Perhaps a better opportunity for systemic change is a drive for a charter commission to look at the way Fairhaven conducts its business and propose any changes it sees as beneficial.
“It seemed to be the best vehicle to remove some of the contentions we have in town,” said Sharon Anderson, who’s leading a petition drive to place the issue on the ballot, perhaps in next year’s town election.
John Rodriques, a former selectman and current chairman of the Finance Committee, is championing the charter commission in his daily blog.
“I ask people who may be opposed to such an idea to consider the fact that this gives the voters of the town a chance to make the decision of whether they are happy with the way things are or feel Fairhaven needs to at least take a look at how it operates,” he wrote.