Conway — May 19, 2004 — There was that famous New York Daily News “Drop Dead” headline when Gerald Ford’s administration told the city that it wouldn’t bail out the financially troubled Big Apple. Our state government treated the people of Tamworth with far more disdain in March.
It doesn’t matter whether you support a race track or not. It doesn’t matter whether you believe Tamworth’s aversion to zoning is a tragic error or the perfect model for New Hampshire’s Live Free or Die attitude. Pulling the rug out from under the voters just as they were preparing to overwhelmingly pass a race track ordinance stinks. Not having the guts to face those voters about the issue really stinks.
Regular readers of this space know that expressions of anger don’t often appear. Anger is rarely productive in the political world. Assemble the facts, perform some analysis and then let the conclusions follow. But it’s hard to keep the blood pressure down on this one.
Our elected “representatives” were clearly approached by the car club and uber-lobbyist Susan Duprey. The club isn’t satisfied to have a town that doesn’t have zoning. It wants to eliminate all local control, including that which falls under the state’s law authorizing towns to create race track ordinances. The fact that the club folks are creeps who flat-out lied about their willingness to work with the community probably satisfies the cynics in the crowd. Those of us who are Pollyannas actually thought that playing fair was in the club’s best interest.
The real villains in this though are led by State Senator Gallus of Berlin. He knew perfectly well that this was a special interest piece of legislation that flew in the face of the people of Tamworth. He knew that only days after passing this stealth legislation, the Tamworth Town Meeting would overwhelmingly approve an ordinance they believed would place some restrictions on the development. Gallus must feel confident that he will not hear the engines of those cars in Berlin. Keeping an eye on the good senator’s campaign contributors this election cycle also might turn out to be informative.
The House members who had this blown by them by the placement of the law on the consent calendar are not to blame. They had every reason to believe that legislation placed there is genuinely non-controversial — stuff like making July Hot Dog month. The story behind how it got onto the consent calendar would be interesting. Lobbyist Duprey really earned her pay by pulling off this hustle.
The real mystery in this is the performance of State Sen. Joe Kenney. Why would a senator responsible to the voters of Tamworth, Ossipee, Madison and the surrounding towns chair the hearings on the bill and not take a minute to check with his constituents? Even if he wanted to see this travesty pass, didn’t he owe it to the voters to let them in on the fact that they had been disenfranchised? His original defense of the bill seems to be fading with the uproar that has ensued, but we still haven’t heard him say, “Whoops — I blew this one, but I am absolutely committed to reversing it as soon as possible.” If he applies the same parliamentary creativity to fixing this that the club utilized in pulling off this outrage, there will be no problem.
Our local economy relies upon tourism. A race track for high-rollers brings the kind of bucks into the area that has an inherent appeal. Is a race track any uglier than a ski area? Will enough petroleum make its way into the aquifer under the track to be a bigger environmental threat than a gas station? How loud will it really be? Clear answers on these questions are not obvious. These are precisely the sort of tough questions that deserve a full and fair hearing — ideally one that does not set neighbor against neighbor, but brings the community together to resolve a tough problem.
Instead, what we have here is the sleaziest legislative gift to a business since the public service bankruptcy payoff. The club has demonstrated that it is comfortable lying to the town that will be hosting it. A handful of legislators, probably under the guidance of a lobbyist, slipped an enormous goody into the basket of a private company to the detriment of their constituents. It will be interesting to see which legislators go to work and get this fixed and which sit on the sidelines and collect campaign contributions.
George Epstein, chairman of The Echo Group, lives in Madison and can be reached at gepstein@Echoman.com.