A friend of mine sent me a newspaper clipping and asked “What the heck is going on here?”  Entitled “ ‘ Porpoisidal’ Dolphins,” the article quotes some marine mammal researchers who witnessed “violent and fatal” attacks by bottlenose dolphins on harbor porpoises.  They were baffled that one marine mammal would attack and kill others not likely to be direct competitors, but they speculated that high levels of testosterone might have been involved.

It’s challenging to evaluate such reports because of our human perspectives.  We shake our heads at human gang-rapes and shooting sprees, somewhat comforted that these are aberrations even among humans.  We accept the range of human variability without recognizing anything similar among other animals.  Then some researchers discover panicidal (murderous) chimps or individual baboons that stalk and kill young antelope.  Then there is Fifi, behaving just fine at home but becoming a raging pack animal out to kill when running loose with other “domestic” dogs.  These are perhaps the flip side of cases where the lion lies down with the lamb, where the tiger mother raises piglets or the she-wolf raises a feral boy.  You can advance hypotheses about the overwhelming strength of maternal instincts or the corrupting influence of testosterone; some may prove true, others not.  The interesting thing is that we are surprised.    

The world is filled with strange things, some wonderful, some bizarre and offensive.  Different people may interpret those strange things in completely opposite ways.  Watch the verbal battles between Republicans and Democrats—they could just as well be different species.

Let me share one perspective.

In Prescott, Arizona, the City Council has blatantly reneged on its obligations to actively seek and purchase open space properties from sales tax money voted for by local citizens.  Deviating from published acquisition schedule was justified by implicating that it could be made up in the future.  Well, the future, the end of the sales tax period, is upon us, without indication that the City fathers and mothers ever intended to meet their obligation to the citizens.   Expected to spend up to $40.7 million over a 15-year period, they have spent only about $16M; now they’re not even pretending that they’ll get back on track.  Some of us are furious.

But then the light bulb brightens—why are we surprised?  These are politicians.  Their behavior should not surprise us.  We elect people to “serve” us and then find that they’re in the pockets of special interests; the patterns are so well established that we are foolish to think that this council will be any different.  As often quoted, insanity is doing the something repeatedly and expecting different results.

They say that we get what we vote for, and that’s true superficially.  Low voter turnout, misleading campaigns, poor salary, and lack of good alternatives can lead to seating of council members who appear unfit for the job.  Short terms of service mean that it’s almost always an election year, and candidates seeking re-election pander to their supporters instead of doing the City’s business.  Yet not doing that business with any degree of foresight can have huge implications—like ending up without a reliable water portfolio so that future generations will be up a creek without enough water to stay afloat.

We need to stop being surprised.  We have abundant evidence that city councils aren’t up to the job of doing everything citizens want.  We don’t need to take back government; we need to take back responsibility.  A community like Prescott is filthy rich when it comes to knowledge, experience, and talent—and these rest with private citizens, not politicians.   These people know people, know the grant-writing process, know how to get things done.

It’s exciting to see people fed up with things as usual starting to mobilize, to form committees dedicated to action.  For example, there is a big push among individuals (with no more at stake than their desire to live in a healthy, vibrant community) to create and implement a watershed management plan.  The City will be just one of many partners, not the lead agency.  This is visionary, but it’s a vision that we should have seen coming for years as local governments have failed us.  It’s probably not even their fault; they work within their limited system that is not designed for success.

Porpoisecidal dolphins or ineffective politicians.  Why should we be surprised?  Getting things done without depending on government—perhaps that is a surprise that we can learn to embrace.

Addendum: Many friends who read this essay encouraged me to submit it to the Prescott Courier  for a Talk of the Town editorial.  I carefully whittled it down to the requisite word count and sent it off with optimism.  They didn’t publish it.  But why should I be surprised?

Rodeo grounds open space, Prescott, Arizona

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