Reflections on Leaving Elected Office
Exactly a year ago this evening, sitting at the very front of the gymnasium in Tracy Hall facing a hundred, give or take, citizens of Norwich, I peered out one of the side windows that looked towards the infamous gazebo, across the Marion Cross School playground where our three kids had spent countless hours during our 17 years in Norwich, and looked for the lights in the back room of St Barnabus church. I knew they were on, even if I wasn’t able to see them. I wished I could be there.
We were down to the final hour of my three-year term as an elected official in Norwich, of which the past two had been as Chairman of the Selectboard. Fellow Selectman Roger Arnold had agreed, or rather demanded, that he present the coming year’s budget at the Annual Town Meeting , and I was relieved to be able to simply watch and listen. He did a good job. There were few questions, if any at all… I can’t really remember. I glanced at my phone to check the time.
I had checked my phone like that as the clock approached 9pm countless times during my time on Selectboard. Regular meetings were every other Wednesday starting at 6:30pm, with special meetings often scheduled in between. We had a few gatherings where we got out in a couple of hours, but most of the time we went past 9, 10, and even 11pm. A few times we went past midnight when things were really off the rails.
For most of my tenure, the purpose of checking the time was to make sure the Norwich Inn Pub wasn’t going to close before a few of us could dash over there, meet others who would make their way into town for the bi-weekly congregation, order a Whistling Pig (or two or three), and commiserate about the town issues of the day for as long as Patrick or whoever else graciously served us behind the bar would allow us. Sadly, these were very rarely moments to celebrate. We would discuss what had just taken place in the dungeon of Tracy Hall, who had attacked who, and perhaps get some insight as to what people thought might be good solutions. Good solutions, however, were hard to come by. The stories we shared mostly caused the same frustration we felt ourselves.
They say that being on a Selectboard in Vermont requires thick skin. I can say without a doubt that this is true. I can also share that I don’t have that required thick skin. My only real accomplishment in my three years was to lead the creation of a thoughtful and collaborative Vision and Guiding Principles statement that I eventually blew up and posted on the wall behind where we sat at our meetings. While such exercises are nearly always aspirational at the beginning, guiding principles provide a guiding light to which we could all remind ourselves represented the best version of who we wanted to be as an organization.
I could never have imagined that the endless attacks on our efforts and on our characters as human beings would impact me the way they did. It was generally a small group of the same people, relentless in their determination to bring others down and seed distrust of elected volunteers wherever and whenever they could. I found it depressing, frustrating, and at times so much so that I showed it very publicly in those meetings. None of us are perfect; we all have limits; we are all human. There were two fellow board members during my tenure, in particular, who while no doubt trying to do their best with what I still believe were best of intentions, got under my skin so badly that I had to leave meetings on more than one occasion. One time I even asked the Chief of Police, only half kidding, if she should consider being part of the executive session meetings for those moments when tempers flared, thinking especially of my own. But our group of 5 usually worked well together. I enjoyed their company, and we learned how to disagree respectfully. Rather, it was that vocal minority that attended meetings that inflicted most of the challenges for me, personally. It was brutal, with constant accusations of intentional wrongdoing, law breaking, and general incompetence on our part, and I remember feeling I was letting the town down by not being able to maintain my cool in the face of what felt like intentional sabotage against achieving our collective goals to benefit the town. I was certainly letting myself down. The trials and tribulations of being on the Selectboard were only amplified during those nights when we did make it to the pub, when the taps flowed, and when a decent chunk of the following day or two were spent feeling the effects of those indulgences. It was a rhythm that led to nowhere good. For me, being exposed directly to the inner beast of our beautiful town and the constant barrage of toxic rhetoric from this vocal minority meant making the easy choice not to run for office again. It also brought to the forefront another good reason, among many others, to consider removing the influence of alcohol once and for all from my life. That day happened to arrive on December 4, 2019 – three months before the end of my elected term.
Back to that Monday night nearly one year ago, on March 2, 2020, as I sat there watching the mostly expressionless faces throughout the gym, I felt a tinge of desperation come over me. Even though this was where I was supposed to be, I knew I was in the wrong place. Across the playground, in that dimly lit room at St Barnabus church, right around 8:55pm, the chair of the weekly 8pm AA meeting would be handing out chips for varying lengths of sobriety. For me, that evening marked exactly 90 days since I had last picked up a drink. So, as I glanced at the time, it had nothing to do with the pub or drowning my frustrations in a series of freshly poured Whistling Pigs. Quite the opposite.
Finally, at 8:53, with a facial expression that was meant to convey a somewhat urgent trip to the bathroom, I stood from my seat and whispered to one of my colleagues that I would be right back. I walked, trying to appear purposeful, past the audience towards the front door of Tracy Hall. I opened the door to Main Street and moved into a full-on sprint towards the church. I scooted through the church parking lot, made my way around back, and as I burst through the side door, I heard the words “anyone with 3 months?” Without pausing I went straight to the front of the room, took my chip, gave my friend who was chairing a hug, and sprinted right back out the door towards Tracy Hall. I heard applause and laughter as I left, which helped me feel more secure that I had done the right thing on all accounts.
As I entered Tracy Hall and returned to my seat, not an eyeball shifted towards me. Less than 5 minutes had elapsed. Nobody cared or noticed. My 90-day chip was safe and secure in my front pocket. The meeting would end a few minutes later with little fanfare.
Two things had changed since the beginning of my tenure 3 years earlier… the Town of Norwich had a Vision and Guiding Principles statement, and I no longer drank.