“This is the republic we live in. They voted for us. If they don’t like our decision, they can vote us out. That’s what a republic is.”

– Councilman Dennis Pone, Nov. 30, 2012

I was in Freehold Raceway Mall with my family when Kelly Yaede was made mayor. Hamilton Post editor Rob Anthes was giving me updates via text message.

I still have the texts. How could I delete them? I’ll always remember receiving them as I pushed my knackered, strollered son around the mall on a Friday night. My wife was shopping, and I was riveted to my phone as Rob described the scene — one council member sparring with residents, another storming o ut, members of the public raging at council.

It was Rob who experienced that living fever dream, not me, but I can picture it like I was there: the fluorescence, the indignation. I never want to know what it really looked like in council chambers that night because that would smear the images that are seared into my mind as if from a video I’ve seen. Only I’ve seen no video.

Remembering that night makes me want to go back — not to the municipal building but back to Freehold, to experience it all again the way I did that night. I don’t actually want Hamilton to go through it again. But I’m weirdly energized by those memories. It was like very strange secondhand theater.

But then, 2012 was a surprising year in Hamilton. There are some who would like to see 2012 fade into the background forever, and others who, of course, keep bringing 2012 up, won’t let it go. If you’re following along, you probably know who I’m talking about each time. Who is right? Who is to say?

* * *

Dennis Pone uttered this column’s epigraph to Rob that night, and his use of the word “republic,” twice, is worth noting. The United States is indeed a republic and not a democracy, and what Pone was pointing out is he and his fellow council members have been elected by the people to govern on their behalf, not to do their bidding. Which is correct, of course. He was speaking with Rob that very night, probably while I was packing my cranky son into his carseat. At that point, Pone might have liked to switch places with me.

This is not a political column. I’m not here to talk about Republicans and Democrats (and independents). I don’t want anyone to think I back one slate or the other, because I do not. But I have some thoughts about the nature of local government.

At some level, the concept of Republican vs. Democrat in small-town municipal government is absurd. Nobody is writing a constitution here. Hamilton may have a one-party government, but they don’t govern dogmatically, surely. In a place like this, everyone’s needs are nearly the same.

At some point everyone sees everyone else at the supermarket. Everyone’s kids play in the same leagues. And I mean, it’s not like any Little League parent would ever let his or her emotions get out of hand on the baseball or softball diamond, on the soccer pitch, the basketball court, not over a game between two teams.

I don’t want to write about who to vote for. I want to write about what it means to lead. To be responsible for the good of the realm.

* * *

What does it mean to govern? Well, what does it mean to be alive? To know who your neighbors are, what their stories are? What your own story is? Those who serve in public office often express that people don’t know them as they really are. But it would be more accurate to say that we don’t see the vision of them that they project for themselves — the person they wish to be, that they hope to be. The people will always have their own visions.

It’s discomforting sometimes to realize that both visions serve certain narratives. Neither is “true” in an objective sense. Nobody sees anyone else “as they really are.”

I don’t fault politicians for trying to create public personae, characters they can try to inhabit when they face the crowds. That’s good public relations, and it’s a defense mechanism. When someone you meet starts trying to tear you down, it helps if even you don’t feel the person they’re tearing down is really you.

There is another side to this. To be made to seem to matter, that’s what we want. To govern means to ask questions. Not to other people in town hall, not to other people on council, but to everyone. The public. The experts. People who may say what politicians don’t want to hear. To ask, what really matters to you? And then, to listen. And then: to act.

We tend to protect ourselves from the gaze of others, but the dynamics are very different when someone engages us, asks us to tell them who we are, and seems to care about the answer. We’re compelled to share.

Yes, this is a republic, and voters will be asked at least one question — who will you vote for? — on Election Day. But I’m pretty sure no one ever said voters should never be asked any other questions. The dialogue may get contentious at times, but that makes it no less essential.

To govern means to communicate. To speak and to listen. Everyone, deep down, knows this. But knowing, as they say, is … well. You know.

“To me, especially in local government, it’s at a level where you don’t get too philosophical about anything. But you have to do the job that has to be done. You have to make sure the garbage gets picked up, and anything else on the streets is taken care of. Anything of that nature.”

– Former mayor Jack Rafferty, Sept. 5, 2013, in an interview with the Hamilton Post