Wednesday, August 01, 2007

High Stakes Town Meetings

As no doubt everyone knows by now, Middleboro passed two important measures last Saturday. The first was a 'yes' vote on the proposal for a Womponoag casino in Middleboro. The second was a 'no' vote on the ethereal casino, the concept of casinos in Middleboro. Why the inconsistency?

Someone could write a fifty page paper using Saturday's Middleboro Town Meeting as a case study in how people think and vote. For starters, the vote on whether or not town residents wanted a casino at all came second - a bit peculiar, but rational from a psychological point of view. If that vote came first, it would have been more likely many people would have voted no the second time around: a no vote on casinos would have already been established, rephrasing the question would have only served to piss voters off. However, reversing the order allowed voters to vote for the money, then complain about it in their very next vote.

Of course, there's more than the way our minds work at stake here. There are two other important things to remember here. The first is less important, but certainly more infuriating. It isn't every day that it seems as though everyone is conspiring against a town, but Saturday was one of those days for Middleboro. First, you have the speed at which this proposal was accepted: the actual deal the town voted on was posted online less than a week before the event. It was a 45 page document, written by lawyers no doubt. How were voters supposed to read and understand all 45 pages of the fine print? The answer? They weren't - as was later found out in the Globe, when a UMASS Dartmouth professor discovered the rhetoric didn't quite match the figures. The casino promised 11 million a year for the town, when in reality it'll be millions less.

But, who's going to let the truth get in the way? Of course, media-critic Dan Kennedy has more on that. Want to know what's probably the biggest reason why the town would vote against casinos in general, but for the Womponoag casino? Well, via Dan Kennedy, here's a theory:
No doubt some people voted "yes" on the agreement because they would genuinely like to see a casino come to Middleborough. But there were others, plenty of others, I suspect, who voted "yes" because they were told, repeatedly, that the casino was coming whether they wanted it or not, and that they might as well negotiate the best terms that they could.
Ah, yes, the rumors were certainly spreading around Middleboro that a casino was (in)coming - irregardless of how the people voted. May as well get something out of it, right? Not only does Dan Kennedy talk about that, but I'm pretty sure Joe Schlieff , a Middleboro resident and frequent Ryan's Take commenter, was talking about the very same rumor in a comment a while back. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth: there is nothing inevitable about a casino in Middleboro - even today.

In fact, that's the second and most important thing to come out of Middleboro's town meeting. Saturday's vote, as it stands, is just as symbolic as their vaporous "do we want casinos?"Of course, neither vote really means much in the grand scheme of things, which makes their spitting in the wind with their Question After the Fact all the more laughable. It's Beacon Hill that will decide whether or not a casino will be built in Middleboro (followed by one in Martha's Vineyard). Because of the way federal law works, states get to decide what kinds of gambling they'll allow. If any of a particular kind of gambling is allowed, in any way, shape or form, Native Americans can incorporate those games on their land within the state. However, Massachusetts does not allow slot machines in any way, shape or form - at least today. Therefore, the Womponoags can't have them - and a casino, without slots, certainly won't be turning any big profits. A casino in Middleboro isn't quite as inevitable as citizens of the town were lead to believe, which they probably would have realized if the town didn't jam the lies down their throat in the first place.

Alas, let's not be mistaken here. The #1 reason why Saturday's vote turned out the way it did was because the town elites within Middleboro arranged it. Yes, even in America, votes can be arranged. Let's go over the facts: a huge Town Meeting, where thousands were expected to come, was set up in a matter of a few weeks. Even Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who's usually inept, knew enough to question the validity of that. The result? Thousands in the town couldn't come: it was a hot, summer day - so none of the elderly, obviously, would be there. Of course, parents with young kids were less likely to show. Then, there's the people on vacation: they couldn't change it in the few weeks notice they had.

More importantly, has anyone questioned why the town's administration did nothing to correct 'the casino is inevitable' meme? Gee whiz, I wonder why? One reason: people who would buy it, but didn't want a casino, sure as hell won't waste their Saturday on a done deal. Here's another: the whole speed of the thing helped foster the idea that the casino was inevitable. The town admin propogated that rumor with the haste at which they organized the vote. By speeding the process up, people were less likely to learn all the facts. They were less likely to learn there was nothing inevitable about it at all. They were less likely to learn that the big part of the town agreement - 11 million dollars - was more myth than reality. They were less likely to force the town to actually study - and vet - the process. Towns vet whether or not to allow a Dunkin Donuts on a busy street, or whether Kennedy Avenue needs a stop sign: there's only one reason why Middleboro's administration wouldn't want to vet a casino.

All of the above becomes more obvious when you learn facts like the police union endorsed the deal. These are the same police officers who, as Dan Kennedy wrote, blatantly allowed Yes Voters to wear campaign literature, but stopped No Voters from having the same kind of rights. This is the same town who's selectmen had their spouses speak on behalf of the deal. Of course, no one would expect they did any fishy business to make sure it passed, behind the scenes, right? Well, the Powers that Be - the Good 'ol Boys, as Lynne likes to call them, did everything in their power to make sure the casino passed. Yet, in the end, thankfully, they aren't the ones who get to decide.


Anonymous said...

Ryan - two points.

First, about the order of the questions. On a Town Meeting warrant, the questions which the Selectman have considered and made a recommendation on come first. thos added by townspeople by petition come after. If this was a usual 18 - 20 article warrant, the Selectman's contract article might have been #1, and the petition article #17. It really has nothing to do with psychology.

Second - the tribe could open a high stakes poker parlor tomorrow. It might not make as much as slots, but it WOULD bring in a pretty penny. Much of the grousing you hear is that BOSTON isn't getting enough of a cut - Deval has said he favors casinos all along, until one was going to be built outside of 128.

I don't know why you thing the Gay Head Wampanoags would build a casino - they got federal recognition 10 years ago, and have repeatedly said they weren't interested. And Galvin has no say over Town Meetings, so his remarks are equally off base.

Chris said...

Worse than the administration doing nothing to correct 'the casino is inevitable' meme - they actually fostered it. On Monday at the board of selectmen's meeting - a couple of hours after the agreement was finally made public, selectman Adam Bond, who helped negotiate the agreement, gave us a powerpoint presentation in which he basically said that if there was the slightest possibility that the casino might come even if we voted no, then we must vote yes. Selectman Wayne Perkins backed him up - saying I'm not willing to chance that they might still build it. Casino opponents tried as best as we could to convince people this was not true - but after hearing it so many times from such high places we couldn't get the facts out in such a limited timeframe.

Anonymous said...

I would have been satisfied with the outcome of Saturday’s vote had we had more time to consider the details of the contract. One would never consider buying a car on impulse- a wise decision. Why would one decide their town’s future in only four days?

I have nothing against the Wampanoag tribe wanting to build a casino in Middleboro. Tribal Chairman Glenn Marshall is simply looking out for his tribe’s best interests. I would expect that his lawyers and financial backers did just that. However, I wonder if our elected officials did the same for us. What was the $ 100,000 rush? The vote at the town meeting appeared to be a mere formality and a media spectacle. It was not meant to be healthy review of the contract but a dramatic display of support for casino gambling in Massachusetts, a message no doubt directed at Governor Deval Patrick and the state legislature. Fine, I get it, but if the finance committee is right and the Board of Selectmen and the Casino Study Committee are wrong the residents of Middleboro will all pay indefinitely for their hasty vote.

Ryan Adams said...

Anon 3:05, on your first point, the selectmen had their hands over the entire process - just reaid your second sentence, "the questions which the Selectman have considered came first. I'm sure they sat down and considered what question they'd want to come first - I'm not exactly saying they hired a psych specialist to analyze all of it, I was more speaking to how psychology can affect voting behaivor.

However, the more important thing is to address your second point: no, a tribe won't build a casino without slots in Massachusetts. What's my evidence? Where is that casino? While it could have been built decades ago, it still doesn't exist. If they do want a casino with slots, there's nothing I can do about that: good luck to them in that endeavor. It would be a small venture and, quite frankly, I don't think I'd mind it: it certainly wouldn't be a big enough resort to kill the rest of the business community.

Anon 4:46,

I absolutely agree: the town (and state) should and need to vet this thing, which has yet to happen.

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