At our Boonton Town Board of Education meetings, there’s always a familiar face in the audience. We informally call him our “11th” man on the board (we are unusual in New Jersey because we have 10 board members — nine elected from our town and one from a neighboring town, which sends to our high school.).
He has been regularly attending our meetings for many years. When his children were younger, he would sometimes bring them in their pajamas so that they could go right to bed when they got home.
When the time for public comment arrives, this gentleman can be counted on to point out things he thinks we should be aware of, to pose intelligent and probing questions, and when he feels it is necessary, to be politely critical of our board. There are also times he rises to speak in support of the board and to praise the district.
There have been many times I have learned things about our community from our “11th” board member. I also believe he keeps us all on our toes. Knowing he will inevitably be looking over things, we take care to make sure all procedures are followed, decisions are explained fully, and that we cross our “t”s and dot our “i”s. In the back of our minds, we try to anticipate his questions, and have answers ready.
Has he ever made us feel uncomfortable? Of course — no one likes to have their decisions criticized. But he voices his opinions with courtesy and civility, and he is a model of a responsibly engaged community member. As we all know, engaged citizens are key to our democratic process.
It is that aspect of his manner — his courtesy and civility — that differentiates him from the type of board meeting attendee that some of my colleagues on other boards tell me about. Community members who come to board meetings and make personal allegations about board members or staff members or stubbornly repeat misinformation are not helpful to a board’s (and a district’s) forward progress.
I once had an informal conversation with him about whether he would be interested in running for a seat on the board. He asked if he could speak as freely about his concerns and issues if he was on the board, and I told him that once you’re at the board table there are legal and practical constraints on what you can say and do. He decided he’d rather continue to be involved as the “11th” member.
Wikipedia defines a “gadfly” as a person who “interferes with the status quo of a society or community by posing novel, potentially upsetting questions, usually directed at authorities.” The American Heritage dictionary defines “gadfly” in a few ways. It is (1) “a persistent irritating critic; a nuisance; (2) one that acts as a provocative stimulus; a goad….”
Our 11th board member poses novel and potentially upsetting questions, and acts as a provocative stimulus and a goad — all in the most positive sense. He has our grateful thanks. I wish all boards had such a civil and courteous supporter and “gadfly.”