Codger Column: Already missing Paul on the Town Board

About 10 years ago, as Paul Shepherd told Codger recently, “frustrated as a citizen and despondent over regulations I felt were crippling my carpentry business,” he began showing up at Town Board meetings. He felt he could do better than politicians who, he said, had joined the government and forsaken the governed. 

At first he thought he’d run for councilman, but people he wanted to see win were running and he didn’t want to hurt their chances. So in an act that was “all kinds of early,” he ran for supervisor against Jim Dougherty and was trounced.

He wasn’t surprised or discouraged. “As a Shelter Islander, I know a lot about losing. I played on a lot of small teams, and got my butt kicked. You just get up, show up and play the game the best you can.”

“Supporting the new law came with some cost. People he grew up with, Islanders on ‘my side,’ felt betrayed. They never understood his job, he says, which was ‘representing everybody on the Island, not just them.'”

When he showed up at meetings after losing, “Jim and the council were shocked. They saw a ghost. Who is Paul? My personality makes people bleed by accident. I don’t like to waste time strategizing how to be diplomatic.”

Two years later, he won a seat on Dougherty’s board. Codger was fascinated by Paul’s alert, quirky, sly, sometimes rambling mind; he was a philosophical intellectual and, in his own term, a redneck. Eight years later, while his defeat in this past election didn’t hit Codger as hard as it hit Paul (“It felt like a death in the family”), Codger missed that deep voice unafraid to ask, “Why?” 

Like all gadflies, Paul could be an irritant, especially when his comments were opaque, so nuanced his meaning was lost.

Codger was perplexed, for example, and critical, when Paul objected to zoning codes being applied to short-term rentals (STRs) in the new law. Why? Who was getting a pass? Paul finally explained it last week in his book-filled living room.

“We wanted this law to work for people who have been renting out for years, many of whom are not entirely in compliance. They may have long-time substandard accessory apartments. Why penalize them? Actually, I have no feeling about STR’s other than the issue of putting commercial properties in residential areas. After all, you bought your house out here just to avoid these strangers running around your cul de sac all weekend.”

Supporting the new law came with some cost. People he grew up with, Islanders on “my side,” felt betrayed. They never understood his job, he says, which was “representing everybody on the Island, not just them.” 

It took him a while to understand his job, too, and then it became more complicated as the Island he knew as a kid changed, and “the best job I ever had” shifted under him. 

“The pressure to make choices increased. OK, we want young people to stay here on the Island, but these kids aren’t drawn to carpentry or yard work or fishing. The trendiest thing now is the hospitality industry and that means, among other things, STR’s backed by multi-national corporations, off-Island money, off-Island sensibilities. How do we deal with that?” 

Codger thought Paul was getting the hang of it, especially as the often dyspeptic Dougherty’s board gave way to the silent vacuums of the Gary Gerth board, eagerly filled by Jim Colligan and Paul.

“As a defensive player,” said Paul, “I liked to stop the acceleration of a bad idea. For example, I didn’t want us to be making people pay for new septics before we found out more and solved the water problems in the Center, especially at the school. How would that affect things? And then the body politic kicked me out.”

He had never been strongly identified with a major party and, in a time of intense tribalism, being an independent was a disadvantage. Eight years was a good run for a man who had appointed himself to the job. He was more or less done in when three Republicans ran on an STR platform and Colligan, perceived as the most vulnerable candidate, received so much personal vitriol, a rarity here, that he became perceived as a victim to be protected. 

“These red and blue attitudes filtered down from national politics. You’ve got a lawless president, so why not reject regulations for STRs? The Republicans stayed with that. The unaffiliated went with the Democrats.”

This was two weeks since his last Town Board session and he didn’t know when he would start attending again. Of course, as a Shelter Islander who knows about coming back after a butt-kicking, Paul will show up, maybe even run again. (See Gerry Siller.)

Meanwhile, at 64, he needed to find work — his specialty is crafted decks — and re-read his favorite book since college, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, about a young man who is drawn to the communal fire, yet also wants to be alone.