Small-town elected service is a thankless task

Elections are won or lost in a number of different ways. Sometimes those who have the most money to invest in campaigns win. Sometimes the most attractive or charismatic person wins. Sometimes people win because no one else wants the angst of running for office.

I’ve only run for political office once in my adult life and that was in the tiny little town of Alford. It was a long time ago but I learned a powerful lesson and that is that town government is complicated and tedious, and often thankless.

I did that job for three long years. The man who encouraged me to run was the late Gus “Boss” Berkel, a political genius of sorts. He assured me that I could beat a member of the old guard and he told me how to do it. We would deliver a letter to everyone’s doorstep and make the case.

As a little Jewish professor from New York I had my doubts about the chances of winning but the Boss was so sure of me I went for it and, incredibly, was elected. I had also served on a number of town committees in which people wanting stuff came before boards, asked and were told “no,” and then blew their gaskets.

As a selectman, my greatest trials occurred when the Boss took off for Florida for several months. A wonderful man who worked in Pittsfield was often absent as well, leaving me the only schnook sitting up there. It turns out that there were some very serious issues we had to resolve and didn’t.

One was the great hydroponic “pickle factory” caper. Go up Green River Road from Great Barrington, look to your right and there it stands, a model of foolery and wasted taxpayer dollars. I had to go to court on that one and was admonished by the judge for something or other and once again, the legal system failed. But that’s a whole other story.

All of this is meant to demonstrate that you have to have your own good reasons for doing these jobs. When I was asked to do it again, I didn’t hesitate to pass. Later I served as town moderator and I didn’t do too well in that spot, either. People in the audience had to remind me where we were in the town warrant. Luckily for the people of Alford, they got better people to serve in these various capacities.

People run for these offices for a number of reasons. The best motivation is plain old service to the community. Bless those people who do it year in and out. The worst reason is what my brother has always referred to as “blood sport.”

There are some unhappy people out there who are always looking for trouble. They convert their hatred into philosophical rationales. They rant and they rave. If they hate paying taxes, they go to great lengths to tell you that your school system is over-spending. They may offer other ways to get it done, but that won’t happen because it’s just too hard.

Some (but not all) of them are really troubled. You pretty well know that because everyone to whom you mention their names will tell you straight out, “That guy is nuts.” But we don’t have to worry about these folks, do we? Yes, as a matter of fact, we do.

If you read the beginning of this piece you will see how hard it is to serve in office. You can’t go on vacation. You have to work hard, often several days a week. Deb Phillips, who worked incredibly hard for the town of Great Barrington as selectwoman just said no more because she just couldn’t give enough time to both her business and the town. Of course, if no one else wants to run some of the aforementioned characters will take out papers and run. That’s the dilemma and we all know it.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 3/21/15

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