Gregory Dennis: A fence viewer in need of a fence

Good fences make good neighbors, Robert Frost famously wrote in “Mending Wall.”
Perhaps that’s why Cornwall and many other Vermont towns still appoint official fence viewers who, according to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT), “examine fences within the town when requested to do so by the selectboard.”
Turns out, though, that this duty is essentially bogus. “The role of the fence viewer has become somewhat limited,” VLCT’s literature explains, with some municipalities abolishing it altogether.
But despite the uncertain future of fence viewing in Vermont, I have recently and happily ascended to the role of being an official Town of Cornwall Fence Viewer — a title I’ve coveted ever since I first heard it existed.
This thirst for fence-viewing power began with a question to me from Ben Wood, a Cornwall selectboard member who, with his wife Sally, runs the wonderful Otter Creek Bakery.
The board needed to appoint a Cornwall resident as a grand juror, he asked me a couple years ago. Did I want the post?
What, I asked Ben, would be required of me as a grand juror?
Not a darn thing, he assured me. It was just a title left over from a past era. The town merely needed to appoint someone to hold the title.
“OK,” I said, manning up. “I’ll take the job.”
Having found me in an agreeable and energetic mood — I must have just inhaled one of the café’s double espressos — Ben asked if I’d also like to be appointed as the town’s alternate to the county solid waste district board.
Again he assured me that nothing would be required of me — though I could attend the board meeting if the town representative couldn’t make it. Assuming, of course, I didn’t have a better invitation to do something else that evening.
I got another new, important-sounding title and I still didn’t have to do anything? This was my kind of public service — all the glory and none of the pain.
Sure, I said, positively drunk with power and prestige. Barack Obama’s got nuthin’ on me. Sign me up for that one, too.
So far they’ve both been great jobs.
Nobody’s asked me about jury duty, and the only thing I’ve had to do is once a month, transfer the agenda packets of the solid waste district from my mailbox to the recycling bin.
I’m now in my second terms in the positions of board alternate and grand juror. I’ve managed to stay out of court and out of the news. So probably it’s because I’ve done such a bang-up job that Ben asked me — on behalf of the entire town of Cornwall, mind you — if I would be a fence viewer.
Ben assured me that I would still not be required to do anything as part of my official duties.
Fence viewers once had the obligation to help the town settle disputes between neighbors about where fences should go. That responsibility, however, has since passed to other officials. And anyway, as Frost put it in the same poem, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”
Forget Frost, though. I just knew that “Fence Viewer, Town of Cornwall” would look great on my business card.
My chest swelled with pride as I accepted this new addition to my power base, this crowning achievement that would no doubt be the headline on my New York Times obituary.
I vowed to serve as fence viewer with honor and distinction. And to, whenever possible, brag to people at dinner parties about my unique status.
Curious about the reasons and history behind these honorifics, I asked the Cornwall town clerk, Sue Johnson, for some background. She sent me several sheets outlining fence viewing and grand jurying.
Turns out that fence viewers are entitled to be paid six dollars a day for their services — enough money, I greedily noted, to buy 2.5 espressos at Otter Creek Bakery.
As for jurors, well, they once truly did have grand powers. They could enforce criminal misdemeanor laws including ordinance violations. Even today, the league says, “The grand juror is responsible for inquiring into and providing information to the proper authorities of criminal offenses.”
I mean, if this was a century ago, I would be the new sheriff in town.
Not anymore, though. The League of Cities and Towns says today, “This office is mostly obsolete.”
Indeed, the league advises potentially uppity grand jurors: “Given the complex legal situation that exists today and the ease with which lawsuits are initiated against even professional law enforcement personnel, we strongly urge any town grand juror who receives information about criminal wrongdoing in the town to contact the local state’s attorney.”
So why do Vermont towns still keep these archaic positions?
Bruce Hiland, for many years the chairman of the Cornwall selectboard, told me the town primarily fills the jobs because people like to have the titles.
Indeed, there is still one more job title in town that is more desirable than fence viewer: “Weigher of Coal.”
The weigher serves as a referee to settle disputes about contested loads of coal. For his services, he is entitled to receive the munificent sum of 10 cents for the first ton of measured coal and four cents for every ton thereafter.
VLCT notes that to carry out his duties, the weigher would need a municipal scale — and that no town in Vermont still has such a device.
Jon Isham has been the Cornwall Weigher of Coal for the past decade — rather ironically, since Isham is a well known tree hugger and coal opponent.
Nonetheless, he tells me, “My message to the people of Cornwall is this: Send me some coal to weigh.”
And I, my fellow Cornwallians, need a fence to view.
No need to send it to me, though.
I’d be happy to come by and take a look.

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