Politics in Cambridge, Vermont

This is my final post on my conversation back in September with Marguerite Ladd and George Putnam, of the Cambridge, VT government.  (You can read the first post here.) On my first trips to New York and Maine, the subject of politics came up in subtle ways, but I never raised it myself.  In Vermont, I decided to dip a toe in, and found it was a good place to do so.

First, I needed to be brought up to speed on the Vermont Town Meeting tradition, which George explained takes place once each year, in March, on a declared state holiday.  The agenda for a town meeting includes the election of officers, the town budget, and questions from the town.  In Cambridge, the election of officers is conducted through open discussion, not by secret ballot.  The regional newspaper offers coverage of the meetings and those who can’t attend can watch the livestream from home.  (You can, too.  Check it out.)

George said that “One of the good things about town government is there’s very little politics in it.”  There are no traditional political parties involved when folks run for the selectboard, which can include three or five members.  In 2019, George said there were four good candidates for open positions.  They didn’t campaign ahead of time but, instead, “stood up and explained their positions.”  George, himself, has written quite a bit about town government, as he has learned about it from the perspective of a selectboard member.

Marguerite noted that the candidates’ positions don’t necessarily line up with the national parties, and George said that local views in town are “a mix, where it comes to state and national politics.”  Still, it seems that Cambridge, Vermont is a place where civility can rule.  Note that the two candidates for an open seat in the Vermont House made news in 2018 with their respectful campaign and the fact that they joined together for a musical duet following a debate.  (Lucy Rogers ultimately prevailed.)

Finally, Marguerite answered my last question from our conversation.  Perhaps her description of Cambridge’s residents gets to how the politics remains civil.

How would you describe Cambridge?

MargueriteTo me, it’s a unique mix — and maybe by unique, I mean the actual ratio — of traditionalists and people who are forward thinking.  And maybe that’s the magic ratio.  They’re all passionate about their beliefs but also share that common goal of a high standard and quality of living that’s equal for all.  What that means to them is different for different people, for sure, but somehow it merges into a good median of what needs to happen to keep Cambridge sustainable and keep it growing, with moderate growth being key there.

In the end, everyone is searching for that quality of life.  Being able to live in a place you love, do the stuff you love, and have neighbors who aren’t crazy.  Somehow it shakes out that, even with all the different viewpoints, that’s what makes Cambridge what it is, and also that it can thrive.  Even if they wouldn’t say out loud they’re working together, I think that common denominator is there at the core of it.

The police perspective, Cambridge, NY

While I was visiting with Cambridge, NY Mayor Carman Bogle, she introduced me to the chief of the police department, Sergeant Robert Danko.  I didn’t have an appointment, but Sgt. Danko graciously made time for me after Mayor Bogle and I finished our conversation.  The rest of the town offices had closed and Sgt. Danko was alone in the police office.

I expected that police work would be an area of stark contrast among the Cambridges.  In the end, I found many differences, but also some similarities.

To start, just as the Village of Cambridge shares administrative roles with the Towns of Cambridge and White Creek, the Cambridge-Greenwich Police Department is shared by the two villages.  And they, in turn, receive additional support from the Washington County Sheriff.  There is coordination between the two forces, and the connection gives the village police a broader perspective, such as on current police techniques, than they could develop on their own.  Sgt Danko

I started by asking Sgt. Danko what is going well for Cambridge Police.  “We’re the true essence of a small town police department.  Everybody knows everybody.  People are more comfortable when they know the person in a uniform.”  Community policing would seem to be inherent in working in a small community, where each police officer will likely know many of the villagers. He described policing the village as “not too chaotic.  We have our issues, but they’re not overwhelming.”

Sgt. Danko, who started his career with the village police force but later worked for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office for three years, returned to the village in 2018.  He said that there’s a “big difference” working for the Sheriff’s Office.  It’s “not as intimate as working in a village.  People here are not so intimidated by interactions with the police.”  He said that officers with the Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t usually have as close a relationship with the community.  “We tried, but it’s harder to do.”

Among current issues for the Cambridge police are changes to New York State law that Sgt. Danko described as “more criminal friendly.”  (For example, the state is raising the age at which individuals will automatically be charged as adults to 18.)  “It’s a learning curve and a process for us” to adapt to the changes, he said.

A challenge that Cambridge, MA, NY, and ME all share is the opioid epidemic, and this is one of the areas where the village police force works with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.  Sgt. Danko said of heroin that, “People are selling it here, trafficking it here, and overdosing here.”  With the small communities in Washington County, a regional approach is needed.

While I was meeting with Sgt. Danko, we were joined by a stream of lost drivers.  A utility pole had fallen across one of the roads and drivers were confused about how to reach their destination.  He drew maps and provided instructions to each visitor.  Soon enough, I could give the directions myself, but as the detour involved multiple twists and turns (left at the stoplight, right at the stop sign), I thought it best to leave the directing to Sgt. Danko and I went on my way.

How would you describe Cambridge?
It’s quaint.  It’s active but not too active — the perfect balance of village life, quiet enough that it’s not overbearing.

The police perspective, Cambridge, MA

Today’s post is a written Q&A with Branville Bard, Commissioner of the Cambridge, MA police department.  Though I see Commissioner Bard reasonably frequently, I had asked him earlier for the Q&A by email to help get the blog going.

Later this week, I’ll share the conversation I had with the police chief in Cambridge, NY.  As I move forward in considering what links and distinguishes the Cambridges, I hope to provide more of these side-by-side reflections, as I’ve also done with the mayors (or those at the top of the government with other titles).

How would you describe Cambridge?
Cambridge, Massachusetts is a unique community with a strong mix of cultural, demographic and social diversity, intellectual vitality and technological innovation. It is located across the Charles River from Boston and home to world-renowned educational institutions (Harvard and MIT) and numerous high-tech and bio-tech companies.

Commissioner Bard
Photo courtesy of City of Cambridge website.

What is currently going well in Cambridge, from a police perspective?
We are currently in a time period where crime is at or near record lows, the Department is highly engaged and rooted within the community, and residents believe that the City is a safe place to live. We also continue to revamp our organization in a way that goes beyond traditional policing to best meet and serve the evolving needs of the City.

What issues currently worry you, from a police perspective?
Since 2005, the number of serious violent crimes in Cambridge has nearly been cut in half. However, the number of overdose calls for service has more than doubled, while psychiatric calls for service have increased more than 70 percent. Mental health crises are a very significant issue that need to and are being addressed in a collaborative way with our various community partners.

On a related topic, I am also very concerned about the troubling trend of officers who have taken their own lives across the country. Officers spend so much of their days assisting others, but before they can help the people they serve, they need to first help themselves. Officers need to understand that there is no shame in seeking assistance from the many resources that are available inside and outside of a department.

What do you predict for policing in Cambridge 20 years from now?
The demands of policing are drastically changing, particularly here in Cambridge. It is my hope that national criminal justice reform will lead to an environment that breaks the cycle of crime for those individuals who are frequently incarcerated for substance abuse and mental health-related crimes. Ideally, we will have developed more established collaborations with public health providers and ensure those suffering receive the short and long-term services that will enable them to once again become productive contributors to society.

The Town Government, Cambridge, ME

The one appointment I had set before I started my drive to Cambridge, Maine was with the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, Michael (Mike) Watson.  We had spoken very briefly by phone, and even that one-minute conversation allowed him to share that there is little to visit in the town.  Not that this information discouraged me.

Town OfficeI entered the Town Office and met Donna, the Town Clerk, who had answered the phone when I called.  Mike invited Second Selectman, Ronald (Ron) Strouse, to join us.  Donna was there for the start of the conversation, too.

First, we established the long lineage of Mike’s and Donna’s families in Cambridge.  Mike said he is the sixth generation to live there.  Donna said her great-great-grandparents were among those who founded the town in the 1800s.

(A side-note that Maine was part of Massachusetts from the 1650s to 1820, when it was finally established as a separate state.  As for Cambridge, there’s a tale that a group of folks gathered to discuss a name for the new town, which would break away from Ripley.  A young girl had been reading a book about England, and she suggested Cambridge as the name.  “And that’s how it come about,” Mike said.)

On the other side, in terms of Cambridge longevity, was Ron, who, like me, is from Long Island, NY.  He was looking for a lifestyle change — tired of the traffic (especially given that his work required a lot of driving) and he also felt that New York State made it difficult for him to do things he wanted to, such as hunting.  He found the environment he was looking for in Cambridge, where he already owned a camp (roughly translatable to vacation home).  Though he has been in Cambridge since 1993, he said that, having moved there as an adult, “I’ll never be a Mainer.  I’ll always be a flatlander.”

Cambridge ME town government
From left: Cambridge Tax Collector Kathryn Burdin; Second Selectman Ronald Strouse; Town Clerk Donna Sawyer; Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Michael R. Watson.

We talked a little about the remote location of Cambridge.  I had observed that the drive into town — quite relaxing on a sunny day — must be a challenge at night or after a snowfall.  Ron and Mike acknowledged that’s true, but pointed to destinations within half an hour that make it worth the drive.  Both Skowhegan and Newport have Walmart stores and Dexter has a Dunkin’ Donuts.  Some of those towns have a larger population base; for example, neighboring St. Albans has nearly 2,000 people, about the same as Cambridge, NY.

Cambridge receives some of its services from outside.  There’s no local police force, but the Somerset County Sheriff and the State Police supply law-enforcement support.  For schooling, children attend a regional school in Guilford (Piscataquis Community Elementary School and High School) as part of Maine School Administrative District #4.   The town has its own volunteer fire department.

Despite the limited official resources in Cambridge, Mike and Ron made clear that there’s an abundance of support from the townsfolk for each other.  Ron said, “People help each other.  If someone has a problem, everybody gets together to help them.”  Mike added, People here like to talk.  Sometimes it’s gossip, but sometimes it’s helpful.”  He was not impressed by a trip to New York City, where he observed that “people don’t talk to each other.”

Mike describes Cambridge as beyond rural.  “It’s country,” with about 100 households.  “In country, there are no secrets.”  And Ron pointed out that new housing construction needs to be placed on plots of at least four acres.

In our wide-ranging conversation, I asked Mike and Ron if the opioid crisis has touched Cambridge.  Ron confirmed that it’s a “serious issue” and Mike noted the town’s particular challenge that it doesn’t have the police or medical resources to deal with an overdose.  They have also been thinking about Maine’s legalization of recreational marijuana, which took effect in June.  While about 15 towns or cities quickly “opted in” to allow the sale of marijuana, Cambridge has already enacted an ordinance to opt out, even though there would be financial benefit through the sales tax to allowing a dispensary.  Ron said they would “let the other towns deal with it.”

I asked Ron and Mike what’s going well in Cambridge now.  Mike said that they’re holding property taxes low, getting some roads fixed, and keeping the fire department.  Ron mentioned that they’re bringing high-speed internet into town.  Lack of connectivity is a problem, just as it was in Cambridge, NY.  They’re also trying to maintain the population of the town, hoping people will move in and buy the properties that are available.  And then they hope the new residents will be involved citizens.  Ron said, “We need people to step up to the plate.”

Mike and Ron were extremely generous with their time, and I’ll be back soon with notes from the rest of our conversation.

Last: while Cambridge, MA residents call ourselves “Cantabridgians,” and Cambridge, NY refers to “villagers,” those in Cambridge, ME simply go by “Mainers.”

How would you describe Cambridge?
Ron: A very small private community that looks out for each other.  Quality of life is superior here, I think, and everybody gets along and, like I said, they look after each other.  Just a good good town to live in.

Mike: I think it’s a nice little community.  Been here a long time and it’s gonna be here for a long time afterwards.