Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Don't just disagree, debate!

The ongoing controversy over the high school project is a difficult one for anyone who truly cares about the future of our whole town. The only way to turn this controversy into a productive debate about legitimate financial strategies is to actually have "debates" and to focus the arguments on the substantive question, which has nothing to do with the motives of the advocates or opponents.

It's time to put aside claims that our elected officials have irrational biases and to put forward the best financial arguments for and against the proposed investment in the town's largest capital asset, the high school.

The failure of the select board to debate and vote on the project was very unfortunate, but instead of beating them over the head with their mistake, we should encourage them to publicly explain their perspectives as soon as possible. Hopefully, the fact that I was in the room when that happened and didn't totally lose it is an indication that I'm making progress on my anger management.

The transparency of the project's development over the last year or more has been laudable and should not be abandoned at this late stage. Supporters of the project (like me) need to "try hard" to avoid attacking opponents for their use of rhetorical gimmicks, something that would be easier if the debate were open and fair, with clear rules and ample opportunity for both sides to rebut the claims of the other.

I hope every town resident will contact the elected officials and candidates on both sides of this issue and urge them to go public with their best "substantive" financial arguments, and to participate in as many well structured, open, and fair debates as possible.

This decision is way too important to allow our conflicting general political perspectives to confuse or distract even one single resident. On this point, I must admit, I have some culpability. Local government is government, not business, and ideology is definitely relevant, however, when local government's make financial decisions of this magnitude and moment partisan and ideological voting cues can do as much harm as good. This debate is not about "the schools" per se, it is about the pros and cons of making a capital investment in the biggest and most visible public asset in our town. Attitudes about education, or teacher pay, or the like, are not central to the question before us.

The advocates need to make the case that this investment will enrich and improve the whole town at a price that will never be this low again. Opponents need to explain why this investment would not add value to the town, and (in my opinion) they should also detail a viable alternative that will move our town forward and begin to tackle our serious capital deficiencies.

For my part, I will try to control my temper and to employ my expertise in public administration, budgeting, and finance, to explain to as many residents as I can why I believe that the project is key to the financial stability of the town. I have invited any and all opponents of the project to debate me on my LCTV show. That invitation stands. Open and fair debates have been suggested by a number of organizations in town. I strongly urge every candidate and activist on this issue to seek to participate in as many of these as possible.

One piece of evidence for my claim that this issue is not about left versus right, it seems to me, is the very strong support of Rob Aseltine for the project. Rob is a VERY conservative Republican who has clearly demonstrated his conservative political and economic bona fides. If you share a right of center political perspective that makes it difficult for you to trust a liberal on this issue, just go to Rob and have him explain why this investment is perfectly consistent with a conservative approach to public finance.

Jerold J. Duquette, M.P.A., Ph.D.

No comments: