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Jim Kenyon: Selectman vs. Selectwoman in Piermont

Published: 6/29/2016 2:30:51 PM
Modified: 6/29/2016 2:30:57 PM

Fireman has become firefighter. Policeman is now police officer. Mailman is out. Mail carrier is in. Language evolves. And it has nothing to do with political correctness.

As more and more women enter professions and take on roles traditionally held by men, certain words become outmoded — and inaccurate. Referring to a woman who heads a board as “chairman” comes to mind.

But traditions die hard.

Take the Piermont Board of Selectmen.

At Town Meeting in March, Terri Mertz was elected to a three-year term, joining two men already on the board.

As part of the job, the town supplies business cards to each Selectboard member with his or her name printed on them. When Mertz received her cards, she immediately noticed the title under her name: Selectman.

“I don’t feel comfortable being called a selectman,” she told me. “I’m a selectwoman.”

I think it’s fair to say that she was slightly perturbed. “It’s just another example of what I’ve been dealing with,” said Mertz, who contends that board colleagues Colin Stubbings and Randy Subjeck are having difficulty accepting her as an equal.

“I’m not taken seriously,” Mertz said. “They think I’m just a mouthpiece for George.”

George, as in her husband, who ran for the board and lost to Subjeck, in 2015.

When it comes to Piermont politics, the Mertzes can be “very combative and abrasive,” Subjeck told me, but the notion that he doesn’t respect the town’s newest Selectboard member is “absolutely false.”

Now, back to the business — or business cards — at hand.

Without informing her colleagues, Mertz had new cards printed at her own expense that listed her preferred title: Selectwoman.

A couple of weeks ago, Mertz replaced her town-issued business cards with her new ones. The cards, along with those of other board members, can be found on a windowsill at the town offices for anyone to grab.

End of story? Not quite.

The next time Mertz was in the office, she noticed her cards were not on the windowsill. The “Selectman” cards were back. She found her cards in her town office mailbox. That would be the mailbox that says “Selectman.”

From emails that Mertz shared with me, it appears that Subjeck, the board’s chairman, told Jennifer Collins, the board’s executive assistant, to switch out the cards.

At Tuesday night’s board meeting, Subjeck brought up the matter. “Why are you making this an issue?” Mertz asked. “I think the proper title is ‘Selectman,’ ” replied Subjeck, adding that state statutes supported his position. “We have to stick to the rules.”

Stubbings said he was under the impression that Mertz was comfortable being called a “selectman.” But it was her “prerogative” to change her mind. Still, he said, she had changed cards, including adding her photograph on the front, without the board’s approval — a no-no in his book.

“I didn’t realize I needed permission,” Mertz replied.

The back-and-forth bickering continued for a while. Finally, Sam Rounds, who was among a dozen residents in the audience, looked up from her knitting.

“This is like watching the Republican debates,” she said.

Selectboards, and not just Piermont’s, have a reputation for being old boys’ clubs. After all, what do women know about road graders and gravel?

Apparently enough to get elected with more and more frequency. In Lyme, for instance, two of the three positions currently are held by women. I called Chairwoman Sue McKenzie to get her take on the flap in Piermont, which by the way, had a two-woman majority on its Selectboard during the 1990s, according to the town’s annual reports.

Had Mertz overreacted?

“To call it the ‘selectmen’ is not correct,” MacKenzie told me.

MacKenzie is not crazy about “selectwoman,” either. “It should be gender neutral,” she said. (In its news pages, the Valley News usually refers to selectboard members.)

Even the New Hampshire Legislature, the ultimate old persons’ club, has seen the light. While making a few calls on Thursday, I learned that lawmakers had settled the issue in 2008. Under Title I, Section 21:28, New Hampshire statute now reads: “The words ‘selectwoman,’ ‘selectperson,’ and ‘select board’ may be used interchangeably with ‘selectman’ in all instances, where appropriate.”

I mentioned this to Subjeck, who, along with serving on the Piermont Selectboard, is a Republican candidate for Grafton County Commission. “It does substantially change my position,” he said. “I was incorrect.”

Give him credit. In today’s world, it’s unusual for a politician to acknowledge a mistake. Subjeck plans to address the business card debacle (my word, not his) at the next board meeting.

It had been a while since I’d attended a Piermont Selectboard meeting. The last time was in September 2014 to write about an armored Humvee the Selectboard had acquired through a federal program that provided local police with military equipment the Pentagon no longer had a use for.

Back then, I wasn’t sure what Piermont, population 750, or any other community, for that matter, needed with a piece of war materiel. And I still wasn’t.

So I asked Police Chief Gary Hebert, who was hired last year, how the Humvee was working out. Upon taking the job, Hebert discovered the town hadn’t budgeted for maintenance or fuel.

“I got rid of it,” he said.

Hebert shipped the Humvee to the town of Barnstead in Belknap County. I wonder if Barnstead could also use some archaic business cards.

I know where some can be found.

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