William Marvel: Stakeholders?

Two weeks ago, buried in a news article about the parking problem at Diana’s Baths, lurked a deeply troubling reflection of the incestuous relationship between government and business. In a garbled aside, chamber maven and Fryeburg selectman Janice Crawford was reported as having emailed this newspaper about a secret meeting on an unspecified subject by government officials and local “stakeholders.” The only attendees mentioned in the announcement were public agencies or officials — the White Mountain National Forest, the N.H. Department of Transportation, and Mary Carey Seavey, who is the chamber’s evident proxy among the Conway selectmen. For all that official representation, the announcement concluded with the caution that “the meeting won’t be open to the public.”

I couldn’t find out whether that meeting was ever held, but it doesn’t really matter. It was enough to learn that a Fryeburg selectman (and perhaps a Conway selectman as well) thought it appropriate for public officials to hold a meeting on a public topic from which all but a few select and privileged members of the public would be excluded. No wonder Fryeburg residents have evinced so much mistrust of late in their board of selectmen, and Conway citizens might start to be a little wary, too. That sort of clandestine strategizing between the local chamber of commerce and government officials is no surprise to those of us who have lived here long; the Tech Village has provided lair space for Conway’s secret government for some years now.  Still, the lack of reaction from press or public was a little disheartening.

“Stakeholders” has become a buzzword in community discussion of late. I’ve never used it before, and wasn’t really sure what it meant, but I have a collection of dictionaries dating back to an 1864 edition of Webster’s Dictionary of American English. A stakeholder was then “the person with whom the bets are placed when a wager is laid.” For earlier meaning I resorted to the most thoughtful wedding gift anyone ever received — my compact but unabridged edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It turns out the word has been around under the same definition since at least 1708, and it was confined entirely to betting parlance for more than a quarter of a millennium.

Not until 1965 did the term emerge with another meaning. That year a business tome entitled “Corporate Strategy” dragooned the old wagering noun into commercial usage. The new definition still entailed sums of money, but this time with a different type of gambler — someone who had invested capital in a company. Businesses soon came to be recognized as potential stakeholders in a larger corporation, and later the interpretation expanded to include private organizations and even government entities.

Today, with innumerable new dictionaries available online, most still relegate “stakeholder” to the bubble of business jargon. My favorite among them is the Urban Dictionary, which leans toward my own impression of the word whenever I hear it. That irreverent lexicon’s principal definition for it is “a term widely used in the corporate environment usually by management or workers aspiring to be managers without any intelligence or sense of how stupid they sound.” The transfer of that vernacular virus from the corporate environment to government institutions and appointees threatens to mutate the disease of corporate cant into officious, authoritarian arrogance.

Usage has more recently bestowed a somewhat pretentious connotation on the word. In the context of private, would-be community decision-makers such as chambers or commerce — or at least our chamber of commerce — it seems to carry an especially aristocratic tone. Those deemed to be stakeholders, or those who call themselves stakeholders, appear to expect a certain deference for their exceptional status.

As the hint in the April 25 story suggested, Janice Crawford’s anointed stakeholders assume an implied right to secrecy in forming and implementing the strategies by which they will manipulate the governance of the teeming masses of mere citizens. They appear to view National Forest officials, DOT, and selected selectmen as their private servants to some degree, rather than servants of the public as a whole. Crawford and Seavey evidently saw nothing wrong with it, but I wonder how the heads of our state and federal agencies felt about it, if they were informed that it was the intention to bar all but the most special citizens from their conclave.

The stakeholders know what’s best. They’ll take care of everything. Don’t trouble your pointed little heads about it.

I have never been what could be called a betting man. Even if I were, I don’t think I would choose the aspiring queen of the covert empire to hold the money.

William Marvel lives in South Conway.