Letter to the editor: Steve Bowen

Does the Rockport Select Board need to hear more? Yes.

Sat, 02/06/2021 - 8:00pm

On January 11, I submitted to the Rockport Select Board a long letter outlining my concerns with how they have handed the issue of short-term rentals. In particular, I expressed my deep concern with the Board chair’s use of a taxpayer funded newsletter—mailed to everyone in town at public expense—to advocate in favor of the dizzying set of regulations and restrictions on short-term rentals that a narrow majority of the Board seeks to impose. As I amply demonstrated through a thoroughly annotated version of the newsletter article in question, the “informational” article the Town published at public expense was blatantly one-sided, with precisely zero space given to the large and rapidly growing number of Rockport residents who oppose these proposed restrictions.

In my letter, I called for an apology from the Board for their taxpayer-funded advocacy, asked that they adopt a policy to prevent such advocacy in the town’s newsletter going forward, and that they allow opponents of the proposed ordinance space to rebut the chair’s claims.

What I got in response was none of these things. In a short reply to me, the Rockport town manager made the argument, without a single piece of evidence, that the article in question was informational only, and denied my request for a rebuttal to be included in the next edition of the newsletter. 

The Board itself took no action on my complaint, and the reading aloud of my complaint at a recent Board meeting was interrupted by the Board vice-chair, who grew impatient with my entirely justified concern. “Do we need to hear more?” she asked.

Yes, they do need to hear more. They need to hear a lot more. And I for one would like them to hear what I have learned over the last few weeks.

What I have learned is that members of the Select Board have already made up their minds on this issue. Even though public comments on the measure run two- and three-to-one against the proposed restrictions, the Board is plowing ahead anyway without any consideration of the concerns that have arisen in recent weeks They are unmoved by any opposition at this point.

I have learned that some members of the Board live under the delusion that because they have been working on this issue for many months, this necessarily means that the town is through talking about it. I’ve working in public policy long enough to know that it takes time for an issue to make its way into the public’s field of vision. That there has been an explosion of opposition in recent weeks should tell the Board that the town doesn’t feel at all as though this issue has had a fair hearing. 

In fact, they are no longer interested in any discussion whatsoever about whether rental restrictions are even needed. At this point, they are interested only in fine-tuning the draft regulations they themselves authored behind closed doors. The question of whether we need any regulation at all on these activities is not a discussion they are interested in having.

Over that last few weeks in particular, I have also learned just how openly dismissive certain members of the Board are when it comes to good faith opposition to the restrictions they support. In the “informational” article appearing in the town’s taxpayer-funded newsletter, the Board chair characterized those in opposition as being motivated by self-interest. We know, or course, that the opposite is true. This entire effort to lock down on short-term rentals is driven almost entirely by a small handful of residents (including Board members) who are unhappy about neighboring rental properties. 

Remember, no concrete data – no police reports, no traffic studies, no empirical data of any kind—has been produced to show there is even a problem to be solved here, much less to justify the draconian, business-killing restrictions the Board proposes. It is the opponents of these measures, though, whose views are dismissed by members of the Board as being narrow and self-interested. 

Board member Jeff Hamilton recently called for civility in the debate over short-term rentals, and I wholeheartedly agree. But the complaints I and others have brought to the Board have been ignored and those residents who brought them demeaned and dismissed. Civility and a willingness to listen go both ways, and it is about time that Board members, as leaders of and representatives for the entire community, showed some.

The last thing I want Board members to hear is the following. I have lived in Rockport for 20 years. I’ve taught in its schools, served on its boards, and represented the community in the state legislature. Like all residents, I have, over the years, had concerns once in a while over about the actions of our town’s leaders, but I have never, in two decades of living here, felt so compelled to join my neighbors in a determined effort of resistance against a set of Board members who not only appear unwilling to hear the concerns of town residents, but who conduct themselves as though having to hear those concerns is somehow beneath them.

With the taxpayer-funded machinery of town government being used against us, we will need others to join us in that determined effort, which is being planned as we speak. Be on the lookout for more details coming soon, we hope readers who share our concerns will join us.

Steve Bowen lives in Rockport