What Town Officials Really Mean When They Say No!

Here’s Andrew Gottlieb’s smart riposte to the MASS DEP reg naysayers in town government. Italics for emphasis are mine.

What Does that Mean?
by Andrew Gottlieb, Executive Director, APCC

The recent comments from some local officials taking positions against DEP’s proposed strengthening of septic systems standards might have left you saying “huh?”. That’s because a whole lot of people who have said they were in favor of clean water have opposed the revised regulations. In order to help you try to make sense of what people say versus what they mean, I am happy to provide this Wastewater Double Speak to English Translator. I hope this handy tool will help you understand how some key elected and appointed officials have opposed the proposed Clean Water rules while hoping to make you think they are committed to clean water.

When a local official says, “I support clean water, but these rules will be too expensive,” what they mean is that they support clean water only if someone else will pay. They also mean that they are unwilling to have a frank discussion with their constituents that reversing decades of water quality decline will cost money, that priorities need to be set and sacrifices may be required. A third meaning is that town hall finance staff are resistant and what they want is what really drives policy, not the elected policy makers. A fourth meaning is they don’t want to explain why they can’t pay for it, given that Cape towns have access to 0% loans, over 25% principal forgiveness on those 0% loans, huge sums of federal funds to offset local costs, new sources of money from short-term rentals that lower property tax burdens, and that funds are available to help low- and moderate-income residents lower the costs of sewer connections and septic upgrades.

When a local official says, “I support clean water, but these rules impose unrealistic schedules on towns,” they really mean a lot of things. Most often what they mean is they don’t want you to realize is that, left to their own pace, you have no hope of having clean water for the next quarter century at least.

I’m 60; a quarter century wait for clean water puts me at great risk of being dead before it happens. In truth, it means that for a lot of us an accurate translation is that there will not be clean water in our lifetime. This phrase often also means that they are hoping that their term in office is over before someone must do the hard work of dealing with the problem and financing the solution. The final meaning can be that the town can’t comply with a schedule because there really is no plan. These meanings can be, and often are, all applicable at the same time.

When a local official says, “I support clean water, but I don’t know what we are supposed to do yet,” what they mean is that they don’t accept the clear science that lowering nutrient levels in our marine waters is what is needed. They might also mean that they haven’t paid attention to the multiple briefings and reports made to local boards and commissions that all basically say the same thing about the need, and methods, reduce nutrient loading. Lastly, they simply are stating they don’t want to take this on for all the reasons mentioned above.

When a local official says, “I support clean water, but these rules rely on technology that isn’t proven,” what they really mean is that they don’t want you to focus on the fact that a municipal wastewater treatment and collection program is already known to be reliable and effective at reaching the established nutrient load reduction targets. They want to distract you from the fact that a comprehensive municipal response will solve water quality problems and would rather have you wondering about how and if newer septic systems work.

When a local official says, “I support clean water but these rules aren’t fair,” what they mean is unclear, other than conveying they have no intention of doing anything productive. The precise reasons are garbled since there is no objective definition of what fair means, but the underlying commitment to continued inaction or movement at a glacial pace is crystal clear.

Lastly, when a local official tells you they support clean water but forwards misleading and negative information on social media without comment or context, what they are really doing is trying to muddy the waters without leaving any fingerprints or claiming any responsibility for the confusion they help spread.

Now that you know all these things, you should look at what your local officials do in commenting on these regulations. If they use any of these phrases or their close cousins, take note and hold them to account now and at the next election. I am not saying that these regulations have no room for improvement or refinement. Things can always be made better, but the “yeah, but” comments we have heard so much of in recent weeks are not serious attempts to get to a responsive solution that moves us toward a future with clean water.

Unless your local officials are offering real and thoughtful suggestions for improving the regulations, they are more a part of the problem than part of the solution. Don’t let them slide on it unless you have given up on seeing clean water on Cape Cod again in your lifetime. I haven’t.

3 thoughts on “What Town Officials Really Mean When They Say No!

  1. Lise Beane

    Thank you Andrew for this excellent translation. Political Double Speak (PDS) could be expanded to a full course on Duolingo.


  2. djsalama




  3. Bruce Wallin

    Excellent comments

    So typical of our politicians, at all levels!! Kick the can down the road!!!

    I live on Shoestring Bay in Cotuit…Can’t even take the grandkids swimming


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