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Bridge/My Turn: Give them a break

For the past six years, reading The Recorder has been an important part of my everyday life — there are first-rate stories about folks engaged in local food production, tips on eating local, stunningly beautiful photographs especially of nature and of women’s sports and the latest on sightings of the mountain lions that aren’t supposed to be here.

In the past several months, though, coverage of my adopted home town, Conway, has been disappointing. The current criticisms of Board of Selectmen Chair John O’Rourke, an intelligent and honorable man with whom I often disagree, are both unfair and unfortunate.

Meanwhile, a Pulitzer-level series is hiding in plain sight: a patient, in-depth look at how local self rule is faring in small towns as federal and state monies dry up, unfunded mandates become the new normal and unintended consequences of state regulations like the Open Meeting Law play out.

Within the framework of that bigger story, however, note that governance works pretty darn well in Conway. Town services are good to excellent and the budget is balanced.

This, despite the increasing burden of those unfunded mandates from the state, and, in Conway, the fact that 84 percent of the land is tax exempt. This, although the half dozen hard-working boards and committees that plan, research, debate and manage are either unpaid or receive an honorarium of a few hundred dollars a year. Some of the 30-plus citizens running the town have day jobs, but the majority are semi-retired or retired. The ultimate authority, the open town meeting, is well-attended and well run.

Private associations run by residents giving their time gratis work year ’round to keep Conway a great place to live. In the past year, the Conway Swimming Pool, a private trust funded by contributions, has raised almost $191,000 from several hundred households to meet the astronomical cost of repairs required by state regulation.

My take, as a relative newcomer? A town of about 1,850 souls that accomplishes so much under these circumstances deserves respect.

Sure, some are easier to work with than others. Yes, some are more skillful than others at balancing the inevitable conflicts of interest when all concerned must wear multiple hats or at deciding when and how to broaden a discussion from the early speculative phases to a more inclusive group. And, no surprise, there are occasional hard feelings.

We’re talking humanity here.

Against this background, consider The Recorder’s current complaint to the state Attorney General, demanding that selectmen disclose the names of five unsuccessful finalists for Conway’s town administrator job. Clearly, job applicants for this modest position can be penalized if their current employers learn they’d like to move on. Yet the newspaper insists that under the Open Meeting Law, the list of finalists must be made public — and potential damage to these individuals be damned. Without getting down into the weeds of legal interpretation, shouldn’t we want to protect the little guys, that is, the unsuccessful applicants? Not disclosing their names does no harm to the town or to the general public.

The Open Meeting Law is, broadly, a good and necessary regulation. Surely the spirit of the law is in no way violated by extending the courtesy of discretion to five people trying to better their working lives by applying for a modestly paid job in Conway.

O’Rourke is now refusing to give interviews to The Recorder, and he is urging others involved in town business to follow suit. Given the steady volley of cheap shots and ill-conceived legal actions the paper is lobbing at the town, who can blame him?

Sue Bridge is a Conway resident.

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