Small Town, Small Time

The Curmudgeon lives in the town of Marlton, New Jersey, which is about ten miles and fifteen minutes from four different bridges that span the Delaware River and connect Philadelphia to New Jersey.  As towns go, it ain’t much:  population 10,000, no downtown or main street, tons of mostly chain store retail and dining.  Public ball fields are decent, the basketball courts inadequate, and the tennis courts scarce.  The library is about on par with the library at the Philadelphia public high school The Curmudgeon attended (Lincoln ’75, for those of you keeping score).  The municipal building, while nice, is a monument to indifference to environmental and energy consumption concerns while the courtroom/council chamber in that building is a monument to the self-love of public officials.

The people who run things in Marlton are real Ralph Kramden types – always looking for the big score.  Years ago they thought they could keep taxes low by buying a golf course that would generate revenue for the town.  The only thing their scheming produced though, was a budget awash in debt service and higher taxes.

The Democratic boss of an adjacent county bullied Marlton’s mayor and council into letting him build his own personal heliport outside his office despite overwhelming opposition from the town’s residents.  Because the town and the state and the school board and the fire district – yes, the fire district – can’t synchronize their elections, voters are sometimes asked to go to the polls four or five or, The Curmudgeon thinks, maybe even six times a year (local/county primary, state primary, school board, fire district, general election, homecoming queen).  In a tribute to inefficient government, the town is – incredibly – in two separate school districts:  a K-8 district and a separate regional high school district.

Never let anyone tell you that small-town politics is a more civilized version of its big-city counterpart.  Marlton’s current mayor managed his Republican predecessor’s last successful campaign for office and then, demonstrating his grasp of the concepts of friendship and loyalty, switched parties to run against his former boss as a Democrat, beat him, and then turned around and became a Republican again.  In other words, he’s a real man of principle.

Of course, such acts of selfishness rarely occur in isolation.  The mayor works for the Baltimore Ravens NFL football team and somehow managed to hornswoggle the council into declaring a “Baltimore Ravens Day” in a town where 99 percent of the people root for the Philadelphia Eagles and don’t give a damn about the mayor’s employer.  This is the kind of self-centered “it’s all about me” behavior that leads people to dislike politicians so very much.

Small-town life, unfortunately, begets such small-time practices.  Another small-time practice unfolded recently when one of Marlton’s council members was elected to a higher office – few people seem to hold office long here before running for another – and the vacancy on the council needed to be filled.

In Philadelphia, the place The Curmudgeon knows best, they hold special elections to fill such vacancies.  Each party puts someone on the ballot, the two duke it out, and the winner gets the job.  Having parties put candidates directly on the ballot is pretty undemocratic and profoundly bad government, and The Curmudgeon has long been appalled that election law allows party bosses – people who’ve never even been elected dog-catcher – to decide who gets to run.  After all, whom do party bosses typically select?  Other party bosses and their pals, of course.

By comparison, Marlton makes Philadelphia seem like a pillar of participatory democracy.  Since the departing council member was a Republican, The Curmudgeon learned, the Republican party selects his successor.  The public is not invited, Democrats are not invited, and interviews of candidates are closed.  The head of the local Republican party told what passes for the local newspaper that “Candidates were chosen based on their political experience, election experience and their participation in township council meetings…”  In other words, only insiders need apply.  Good people should just stay home.  People they don’t know need not apply.  So whom did the party ultimately choose?  A former council member who is the son of a former council member who served on the council at the same time as the current mayor’s father.

Come to think of it, maybe Marlton’s problem is all this in-breeding.

Growing up in Philadelphia and spending his first forty-six years there, The Curmudgeon once thought nothing was dirtier than Philadelphia politics.  Now, though, he knows better:  small-town politics is dirtier by a mile.  In a big city like Philadelphia, at least there’s an active press to keep an eye on things.  Bad things still happen, but they don’t happen in secret; they’re blasted all over the front page of the newspapers and on television so everyone knows about them.  In small-town, small-time Marlton, though, there’s no active press, so these kinds of things – the proclamation, the heliport, the council vacancy – occur all the time and residents typically only learn about them after the fact.  It’s a real air of secrecy:  when The Curmudgeon was new to town and there was a mayoral election, he sent an email to one of the candidates (the current mayor, in fact) through his web site, inquiring about his positions on certain issues.  He was informed in a return email that the candidate did not share such information with voters.

In the end, of course, it’s the public that’s harmed by such a closed-door, undemocratic, insider approach to government.  The Curmudgeon has lived in Marlton for eight years and in that time taxes have nearly doubled even though city workers have taken a hit on their health care benefits and city services have reportedly been cut back.  Actually, The Curmudgeon can’t vouch for this cutback.  He lives in a condominium and has learned that Marlton views condominiums as something best ignored – ignored, that is, except for the enormous profits the township reaps from high property taxes from condo owners who consume very few government services.  The Curmudgeon also can’t vouch for the cutback in city services because he lives on the wrong side of the tracks – in this case, on the wrong side of the main highway that runs through the town.  The side on which he lives happens to be the side that’s generally ignored by township leaders.

When The Curmudgeon moved from the big city to a small town, he hoped it meant that elected officials would have his back.  It turns out that he’s learned that you can’t afford to turn you back on those people.


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