At a recent Town Board meeting, a draft of Shelter Island’s Mission Statement was discussed, and since the goals of clean water, responsible growth, maintenance and safety are hard to argue with, the board soon reached what Supervisor Gary Gerth called “a Kumbaya moment.”
A mission is something you intend to do, and a good mission statement guides the enterprise like a border collie bringing an unruly flock of sheep home. Many organizations have them, and too often they are a vaguely worded, forgettable series of sentences, written by committee, and subsequently forgotten.
Few are as grammatically tangled as the working draft the board grappled with on January 15, which was quoted in this newspaper, and is: “To provide a quality of life for all residents that requires the importance and the need to protect water quality for both fresh and salt water bodies, that supports responsible community growth, maintains town assets in its capital plan and that embraces a safe environment for its community.”
So, while our leaders sort out the question of how quality of life can possibly “require importance,” I decided to find out if other small towns have a formal statement of their mission, and if so, do they follow it?
I studied the formal mission statements for many, many small organizations and towns, an act of extreme journalism that no one should attempt except those in need of mind-numbing.
For example, the mission statement of Winchester, Vermont, population 4,000 is “committed to fostering respect, decorum, and hospitality” and Columbus, North Carolina, population 900 seeks “to promote and improve our quality of living, enhance our sense of community, and preserve the integrity of our small-town mountain heritage.”
The Sag Harbor Yacht Club’s 125-word mission statement concluded with “a determined focus on the development and promotion of heightened interest in yachting and related social, historical and community events.” An island airport off Massachusetts promises “to provide sustainable air service for the Island of Nantucket.”
I even discovered the “Mission Statement Generator,” a riff on the old game called Mad Libs, in which you insert words of your choice into a template, to generate a do-it-yourself mission statement without the intervention of high-priced management consultants.
I can now report that although my book group does not have a mission statement, just about every for-profit or nonprofit organization I could think of does have one, including Polar Bears International and the Mattituck Fire Department.
The problem with mission statements is that, without actions, stating goals won’t amount to much. Hoot Sherman, a three-term town supervisor in the 1990s, told me that clean water became a top-of-mind issue for the town after the algae blooms of the late 1980s and early 1990s were blamed in part on nitrates from septic systems. Today, doing something about clean water is still on the to-do list, even as the town approves large, new water-sapping homes with lots of bathrooms that exacerbate the problem.
It’s not mission statements, it’s leaders with a vision in front of them, and the will of the people behind them, that gets results.
About 30 years ago, Shelter Island faced an acute lack of affordable housing for year-round residents. A housing project, which took years to achieve, and spanned the administrations of two three-term supervisors, Jeffrey Simes and Hoot Sherman, resulted in six homes constructed on land owned by the town, sold to six local families who were chosen by lottery.
To enter the lottery, family income had to be about $65,000 or less in today’s dollars, plus about $8,000 (today’s dollars) in savings to qualify for the subsidized purchase terms, and a commitment that they would stay for at least 10 years.
The affordable housing initiative did not generate a lot of Kumbaya moments back then.
There were some who thought it was a big mistake for the town to get involved with affordable housing. In the town clerk’s files, I found a lengthy and well-reasoned letter written to Supervisor Simes in the spring of 1988 that concluded, “we may only be benefitting a handful of families at the expense of all.”
Some feared the winners would flip their properties, put their kids into school off-Island, and move west. Other letters in town files from lottery winners show that over half of those chosen decided to withdraw due to delays in the program, and anger at how the town handled the selection process.
But six families went through with it, and have been fruitful and multiplied. They volunteered to serve in the Fire Department and EMS and to work for the town. They sent their kids to school on the Island, and some now have grandkids. Their good work improved the quality of everyone’s lives.
By any measure, the affordable housing initiative was a success. The six families are still helping to support the local economy, standing by our community in sickness and health.
One of them is Brian Sherman, who has been chosen to serve as highway superintendent when Jay Card Jr. steps down at the end of March. When the inevitable late March snowstorm blankets the roads, I will be very glad that actions taken by the town 30 years ago made it possible for Mr. Sherman to remain part of our community.
And as a lesson for how to tackle our current set of challenges, including today’s affordable housing problem, the Bowditch Road homes are an inspiring example of a mission that needed no mission statement.