Long has the word remained dormant, as if the mere mention could awaken the political volcano that has shaped local government here for decades.
But while merger – or “the M word,” as some have taken to calling it – experiences a resurgence atop a new wave of collaboration, discussion at a recent joint meeting reminded elected officials that their work to shape the future is inextricable from the past.
What’s followed is a crash course in semantics, one that will force them to decide whether they should confront the noun’s complicated history or forgo it altogether. And so the question remains: If it looks like a merger, swims like a merger and quacks like a merger, should you call it a merger?
For some, the answer is firmly no.
“I would invite us to think of a different phrase,” said village president Andrew Brown at a June 25 joint meeting featuring several merger-related discussions.
Brown’s position, based on “the things we have heard about the word merger [and] what that may invoke for some,” came as officials discussed an “elevator speech” to explain their rationale for exploring changes to the status quo.
Brown reminded his colleagues that they agreed last year on a shared vision for Essex Jct. and Essex: a single municipality. But they never technically said a merger was how they planned to get there, he argued, so there’s no reason to let the word define their work now.
“[Let’s] not talk about why we merge, but rather why do we want a new community, why do we want a new board,” he said.
The sentiment was well received by some. Selectwoman Annie Cooper said the word merger is “unnecessary.” Resident John Sheppard suggested they call it a “unification,” and “use that other word as infrequently as possible.” And selectboard chairwoman Elaine Haney agreed the boards should find a “common language” about their goals.
“I think we’re going to find ourselves tripping over our tongues a little bit trying to dance around the M word,” Haney said. “I don’t want to call it the M word because it just sort of makes it sound like an evil horrible thing that we shouldn’t be talking about.”
The unwillingness to give the word “merger” a new life comes with an implicit understanding of its history, which is as long and complicated as the present work entails. For many, merger invokes past failures, including the most recent vote in 2006, which fell as a result of a contentious and stark divide between two factions – those in the village, and those outside it.
Much has changed since then. The elected boards have met on a regular basis in a show of unity that was all but nonexistent a decade ago. And their respective governments are increasingly intertwined through the shared services initiative, a bottom-up approach that aims to make consolidations more palatable to the public.
The response has been generally positive as voters have authorized consolidations by approving municipal budgets each year. But officials know they’ll be asking for much more come 2020 if they decide to pursue a single charter, as recommended by their governance subcommittee.
Still, as much as some hope to avoid the landmine posed by the word, others think it’s a mistake to ban it altogether.
“If we avoid saying merger all the time and then we go to a vote in 2020, that vote has to be in legal language,” village vice president George Tyler said. “It’s going to have to say merger, and all of a sudden [voters] are going to go, ‘Wait a second. We weren’t talking about merger all along, and now you guys are asking us to merge.’”
“It may be painful or troubling or difficult,” Tyler continued. “But the word is going to have to be introduced into the discussion at some point.”
There remain questions over whether “merger” would legally have to appear on 2020 ballots; former selectwoman Irene Wrenner suggested the boards explore other ways to unify, betting an attorney “paid enough” could find ways to avoid using “the M word.”
But if “merger” must be included, trustee Raj Chawla said the boards must explain why this is different than last time. Even then, he said, there’s only so much elected officials can do.
“Rightly or wrongly, [voters] take it the way they take it. We can’t control that,” he said.
Though the discussion began as a linguistic thought exercise, it proved to have real-world implications, as shown later in the meeting, when officials debated what to name an informational website about the governance change.
The subcommittee had already offered a few recommendations, including essexmerger2020.org, but Chawla wondered if the boards should reconsider. Tyler said he didn’t have an issue with it, and selectman Andy Watts agreed, saying the board should “rip the Band-Aid off.”
They were in the minority. Both Brown and Haney, leaders of the two boards, preferred to remove the word from the equation, and officials eventually decided to name their website “greateressex.org.” And as for the elevator speech, officials tasked their subcommittee to explain why the municipalities would “unify.”
To be sure, officials have surrounded their recent verbalism with more substantive work that looks to draw on lessons learned. They recently hosted a daylong work session featuring testimony from department heads and finalized a now-live survey, which they say will help them navigate some of the biggest sticking points – tax impacts, representation and identity – of previous merger attempts.
At the same time, last week’s discussion all but confirmed that “merger” will remain a second-class synonym.
While it’s too early to tell how that may impact a vote come 2020, for some residents, words are the least of their concerns. “If I’m in the elevator with you … I want you to tell me how becoming one entity is going to benefit me or affect me,” resident Mary Lou Hurley told the boards.
“As I’m listening to you folks struggle with the term and what’s it going to look like,” she continued, “I’m thinking, ‘What about us?’”