New Hampshire Public Radio’s Todd Bookman shows what good local reporting looks like. In a recent feature piece on conflicts between town administrators and residents in the picturesque hamlet of Lisbon, NH (population: less than 2,000), Bookman captures the flavor of the place while still managing to highlight a generally applicable trends at play, many of which will only accelerate in the Trump era. (The piece is available to read or to listen to here – take the time to listen.)
Briefly, Lisbon faces high taxes (particularly by New Hampshire’s Live-Free-Or-Die standards) but poor social services (roads are a mess and some residents don’t trust the drinking water). Industry and employment are precarious, with one wire manufacturing plant doing most of the work of keeping the town going. In addition, local government has struggled to achieve organizational stability in recent years, in particular running through treasurers at a brisk pace. With some sense of urgency, then, the Selectboard hired Dan Merhalski as Town Administrator (sort of a COO position in many small New England towns) in 2015. Merhalski didn’t go over well. His serious demeanor (he didn’t joke easily, always wore black, and clashed with residents at town meetings) combined with his ‘outsider’ status (he went to graduate school in the Midwest) made the ‘hair on the back of my neck stand up’, according to Lisbon resident Ina Lippard, a local municipal trustee and engaged citizen.
Tensions eventually boiled over, and concerned townspeople soon petitioned for Merhalski’s ouster. In a statement released in February of this year, Merhalski declared his position “untenable” and resigned. The resignation left the town in a lurch, unable to adequately prepare necessary paperwork for an impending Town Meeting. When residents turned their anger against the entire selectboard—especially after comments by one selectman suggesting citizens stop ‘bitching without stepping up to do something’—the entire Board resigned publicly. “Game over,” one Selectman told NHPR. “You are not going to make these people happy.”
Such are the perils of local government on a small scale. Personalities and politics have a way of bleeding imperceptibly together and engaged citizens can easily become big headaches for municipal administrators. What’s perhaps interesting in the example of Lisbon, however, are the ways in which the same set of socio-economic pressures work at cross purposes when applied to different groups. Faced with a budget in free-fall and razor-thin margins, town administrators felt they had a mandate to make hard choices and take decisive action—thus Merhalski’s controversial decision to consolidate and revise personnel and budgetary policies across a number of departments, for instance. Meanwhile, citizens felt that the same socio-economic pressures should suggest their ever-greater involvement in the inner-workings of municipal decision-making. One Lisbon resident took offense at what she considered Merhalski and the Board’s “preachy” tone and general lack of “respect” for public comment.
All local government—but especially small towns like Lisbon—will need to heed the lessons here to prevent a routine budget crunch blowing up into a full-scale citizens “revolt”.
In some sense, Lisbon is unique. Small New England townships have always taken a certain pride in the vigorousness with which they carry out public business. But on the other hand, as manufacturing continues to sputter to a halt, social services continue to atrophy under cash-strapped budgets, and citizens continue to grow more and more anxious, many small towns across the country may find themselves facing the same set of pressures that came to a head in the Granite State.
One more reason, then, for observers and partisans of small-scale civil-society to take an interest in local news.