Posted by Sheila Connolly
I witnessed history in the making this weekend.
I mentioned in an earlier post that my town was flirting with entering into an agreement with the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribe to support the tribe's opening a casino (or more elegantly, a five-star resort destination) on five hundred or so scrubby, boggy acres on the north side of town. On Saturday, Middleboro took the giant step forward of voting to authorize the five-person Board of Selectmen to enter into this agreement on behalf of the town. They did, mere minutes after the votes had been counted.
Whether this casino complex ever actually comes into being is still up in the air, since it will require approval by the Governor and possibly the Commonwealth, and also the cooperation of the Department of the Interior which must take the land into trust for the Indians, in order that they may operate the casino on "tribal" land. But the town has taken the first giant step.
To outline how this came about, earlier this year the tribe was officially recognized by the federal government. At about the same time, the Town held an auction of properties seized for non-payment of taxes (an ordinary event), when, lo and behold, a representative of the Wampanoags acquired some 125 acres. And then the tribe optioned an adjoining parcel, bringing their total to over 300 acres. Mind you, this is uninhabited land, so nobody is getting thrown out of their home. No secret deals were cut. All open and aboveboard.
And then we learned that our long-term town manager had been talking to the Indians about building (gasp) a casino. And the Indians wanted an answer–fast!–so they can start all that laborious paperwork, and they wanted the Town to support their applications to the Governor and the DOI. Guess what–they were willing to pay for our cooperation, in the millions, and they were also willing to fund road improvements, gas and electric improvements, police staffing, etc., etc. All things we need. In fact, their original cash offer, improvements aside, amounted to something like 15% of the Town's annual budget. New and unrestricted monies, which could be used to re-hire the thirty-odd teachers who were laid off last month, and extend the library hours enough to allow it to retain accreditation, and open the two closed fire stations, and so on. Money on the table; money that isn't coming from anywhere else. Certainly not from the local tax-payers, who recently voted down by a 2:1 margin an override measure that would have funded all those programs. Nope, don't ask us to pay any more in taxes for such frivolous things as the fire department.
Sounds like the casino would be good deal, no? But then came the firestorm. You didn't ask us! howled the townspeople. We don't want a casino! There will be suicidal drunks soliciting prostitutes on the main street of our fair town! and causing traffic jams! You get the drift. And so the great public debate began. To be fair, I think the voters have a right to have a say in such a significant decision. Maybe the town manager and the selectmen (and woman) overreached; maybe they thought that by virtue of their election they had the right to do what they thought was best for the town. Unfortunately the citizens of the town disagreed.
Hence this weekend's Special Town Meeting. For those of you not familiar with this ancient form of democracy (I wasn't until I moved here four years ago), Massachusetts has been holding Town Meetings for over 350 years. Any eligible voter can attend, to elect the town's officers, approve the budget, and vote on local by-laws. Each town must have an annual Town Meeting with a fixed date. But the selectmen may also call a Special Town Meeting, or one may be requested by 200 registered voters.
The weekend's Special Town Meeting may have been the largest in Massachusetts history, with close to 4,000 people voting. Sure, that's only thirty percent of the Town's registered 14,000 voters, but it's still a heck of a big meeting (which created its own difficulties). And as a benchmark, only 200 or so people show up at the regular Town Meeting to approve the annual budget. And doesn't it look festive? Tents and lawn chairs (sorry, no refreshments or jugglers). Those are our town leaders in the shade up there–and the press under the blue tent.
But to cut to the chase: the voters of Middleboro gathered in a field to debate and decide on a move that will change the very nature of the town forever. It was public discourse at its finest: opponents and supporters used every avenue to reach out to voters–websites, mailings, phone calls, letters in the local paper. Everyone was given a fair hearing; the great majority remained reasonably polite and civil, and no one resorted to violence, even though both sides argued passionately. And in the end, economic realities won out: we need the money. The measure passed by a huge margin–roughly 1000 votes, out of 4000.
One final note. The Wampanoags lived here long before the colonists arrived. When those hapless settlers showed up at Plymouth, the tribe helped them to survive. A generation later, those same settlers and their sons decided that they wanted the Indians' land and drove them out (for a good account of how this came about, read Nathaniel Philbrick's excellent book Mayflower). I admit it: my ancestors were among them. So I salute the irony that the Wampanoags are taking back a piece of Middleboro and reclaiming their ancestral rights, in a very big way–in my back yard.