The Night of Toxic Tantrums

by this Councilperson; Posted Friday, January 15th:

Sixty years ago, on Tuesday, June 13, 1961, a powerful storm—neighbors insisted it was a tornado—bore down on my boyhood 100-acre farm between Phelps and Geneva.  I was in school.  Our fifth grade teacher kept us in her classroom later than usual, delaying dismissal, probably on order from authorities. 

It actually once leaned worse. Our cow barn, several years after the Big Storm

Mom was at work.  Dad, too. On separate runs, the school bus dropped off my sister and me at our neighbor’s house.  When Dad arrived and drove us the quarter mile back home, I saw the destruction.  The worst was avoided, but it was bad.  Trees and limbs littered the yard.  The poorly-built Depression-era cow barn was still standing, yet tilted on an angle like the Tower of Pisa.  But the century-plus era farm house stood strong.  The power was out, but our life and our farm, the anchor of our family’s unity, survived.  We moved forward.

In the days, weeks—and yes, years—that followed, we cleaned up the debris.  It would take decades to finally, firmly straighten the barn.  Walk those farmstead yards with me today, 60 years later, and I can show you the telltale signs of what happened and where.

I tell you this story now because of what transpired in Enfield last Tuesday night, January 12th.  As I will forever refer to that June afternoon in ’61 as the day of the “Big Storm,” I will now label our infamous, more recent Tuesday as the “Night of Toxic Tantrums.”  Of all the meetings I’ve attended during my first 24 months reentering Enfield politics, Tuesday’s was the worst.  I hope it never repeats itself.  I pray we never let it.

“It defies overstatement to say that last night may have marked the lowest point in 200 years of Enfield Democracy,” I wrote in a three-minute fiery statement I’d intended to deliver under Privilege of the Floor at the beginning of the following night’s Town Board Organizational Meeting.  I continued: “I’m ashamed of this Town Board and I’m ashamed I’m a member of it.  Michael Miles, you got out just in time….”

I’d planned to lay out 2021’s Enfield political reality in plain-spoken words, placing blame where blame belonged; being as civil as I could, but as blunt as need demanded.  But something told me to hold back; to wait until meeting’s end.  I did.  And by the time we prepared to adjourn, I found my words quaintly outdated, curiously irrelevant and uncharacteristically rude.  I simply bid my colleagues good night and logged off zoom.

In the hours between Tuesday’s parting and Wednesday’s Call to Order, I was angry.  As I’d written the prior night on this website and then spoken candidly to a reporter, I believed my Board colleagues had “held a gun to my head.”  They’d forced me to betray my conscience, my political principles. They’d pushed me into a corner; threatened the heartbeat of yours and my cherished community.  I’d been made an offer I could not refuse.  I’d been strong-armed to cast a make-or-break vote against my better judgment.  And if I did not vote “aye,” I’d have been blamed for blowing up our Town’s governing democracy.  Enfield held hostage.

Therefore, to make ransom, I supported a governmental appointment a majority of my known constituents had cautioned me to avoid.  They’d passionately pleaded and petitioned for me to resist the pressure; to be Enfield’s hero; to protect their patriotic right to choose for themselves the next Town Supervisor, and not allow our Town Board, with me on it, to pre-empt their prerogative.  They told me not to appoint Stephanie Redmond to become Supervisor even one minute before Election Day.

Yet, I could not accept their counsel. For the first time in my life, I’d felt intimidated to my core, the victim of nothing short of political extortion.  I still do.  As I’d scripted in that bitter, but later trashed, rhetorical broadside, I saw two of my colleagues acting like “petulant two year olds in the candy aisle.”  Each of them had threatened to resign on the spot if they hadn’t gotten their way and elevated Stephanie to Supervisor for the rest of this year.  Moreover, I believed—and I still do—that facially anonymous, yet ever-so-conspicuous power-craving ghosts from the past had choreographed my colleagues’ corrosive, clandestine conspiracy. They’d been manipulated.  And so, now, had I. (And in case you wonder, colleagues, yes, I forgive you.)

Had I not done what those beside me that night had demanded, the threatened resignations would have gutted our already-depleted Enfield Town Board to a voting membership of just one—just me.  With two short of a legal quorum; we couldn’t have held our meetings, conducted our business or paid our bills.  Political paralysis would have gripped Enfield.  We’d have been, as I then said, “Dead in the water,” a town left to legislative anarchy.

My planned remarks—the ones you’ll never hear and mostly never read—presaged a troubled eleven months ahead for me and for those I represent.  They’d begin the moment I yielded to pressure and elevated to permanent office a person some describe as an overtly ambitious, arguably unseasoned, and demonstrably polarizing Acting Town Supervisor:

“I fully comprehend what lies ahead,” I’d have said. “I will accomplish little this year.  Board members will deny my Resolutions a second.  They will keep me out of the loop.  They will decide matters four votes to one.  So be it.”

I saw Democracy’s salvation as lying only in Enfield’s November 2nd election.  A clean sweep, I’d urge; one ushering in a new Board; a fresh attitude, one supplanting partisanship with moderation.  I may still wish it.  It may still occur.

But the next evening, Wednesday, the thirteenth, I found the clearing sky I hadn’t expected.  And once I did, I contained my temper.  For just like the morning after that “Big Storm,” our governing Board, as family, quietly, cooperatively began picking up the fallen limbs.  It may take time to straighten the barn; to right the ship of State we call Enfield Town Government.  But somehow—surprising to me—we’d quelled our anger, if for only a few hours. 

We plowed through our Wednesday Organizational Agenda.  We disagreed when we knew principle demanded it.  I moved to reinstate the Pledge of Allegiance to what I believe should be its rightful place at the start of every meeting.  Just as in times past, no seconding motion was offered.  “I don’t feel comfortable seconding it,” said Redmond.  “The Pledge of Allegiance means different things for every person.” We sat for a few seconds in uneasy silence; then plodded forward.  No tantrum; just respect for disagreement.  “End of discussion,” I said to restart the engine.  “We move on.”

Remains of the old maple tree at the farmhouse’s corner. What the Big Storm didn’t break off, gravity bent over the next six decades into a yoga pose.

Wednesday’s meeting burdened us with a weighty workload, but we dispatched our business quicker than expected.  One of our team’s more frequent critics, Highway Superintendent Buddy Rollins, actually complimented us at session’s end for our collegiality. “I think this meeting was a real good meeting for tonight, (compared to) last night… and all of last year,” Rollins remarked.  He stated the obvious.

I harbor no illusions.  One good meeting does not a miracle make.  We still have much to resolve.  There’s the nagging issue of Town Clerk’s pay.  The Town Clerk and new Supervisor must settle their differences.  Vicious, potentially actionable allegations were hurled at the Clerk Tuesday night, words which should never have been spoken, and which the Supervisor should now retract. There’s COVID to fight; a salt barn to build; but also human bridges to erect; a mound of common ground to find.  Maybe we can dig a hole on that mound and bury some hatchets.  I’ll grab the shovel.

With her Enfield hometown priorities intact (pets come first), a Board member, late in our meeting, exited to answer her chocolate lab’s sudden emergency.  It left our Board depleted.  We required unanimity to act.  Accordingly, our Supervisor’s lone dissent blocked a Resolution I’d sponsored that would have aggressively backed community vaccination initiatives against COVID-19.  But I’ve since amended the measure to answer her concerns.  I’ve reintroduced it, and we’ll likely adopt it at our next meeting a few days from now.  That’s how a functioning Town Board should behave.  That’s compromise.  That’s cooperation.  That’s a start.

These are the words I would have used to end Wednesday’s three-minute, monologue critiquing our earlier meeting’s food-fight:  “The wounds carved into the flesh of Enfield’s body politic cut deep last night.  They need time to heal.”

And then I would have closed by saying, “The Toxic Tantrum Enfield Town Board.  May its days be numbered.”  Indeed, I say today, two days after I’d drafted that pointed directive:  Let it be so.

Sadly, I don’t think olive trees grow in Enfield.  The weather’s too cold here.  But I wish they would survive the winter.  If they did, we could each pluck off a branch and hold it up to one another as a sign of an uneasy truce.

Let’s imagine it’s June 14th sixty years ago, the morning after the Big Storm.  The clouds have passed; the winds have calmed.  Yes, there will be future cloudbursts, of whatever strength.  But before the next one arrives, can we put our heads together and answer this most burning question of the moment, “Who among us knows best how to straighten a barn?”