Saturday, March 11, 2006

Town Meeting Report

Once a year since colonial times, residents of New England towns meet in a public exercise of direct democracy that provides a local stage for how messy and wonderful democracy is. These are not like the political debate events staged by the League of Women Voters, but real town meetings--unscripted loosely organized proceedings where any resident can attend and vote on town business.

This year in my town's meeting, the hot button issue as usual was the budget; the state's property value adjustment formula required continuing increases in taxes, which were not popular. Someone requested a written ballot to approve the budget rather than the usual voice vote, to everyone's chagrin. Often that meant people wanted to vote against the budget but didn't want people to know they were doing so. Anyway, the budget passed, which was the only really reasonable choice, and we moved on to 'other nonbinding business'.

An elderly gentleman was very concerned about town employees 'escorting' women from out of town, and it had something to do with a proposed dog park. I didn't quite follow.

There was another elderly man, the only African American in the hall, dressed in a suit, quietly and attentively clutching copies of the town budget and other references, and clearly taking his citizenship very seriously.

Parents of young children, including myself, staked out the back of the hall. About half a dozen toddlers played busily on the floor, occasionally ushered out by embarrassed parents when their patience ran low, which became more often as voice votes were taken on miscellaneous matters of business toward the end.

Toward the end of town meeting, the selectmen announced they were forming a committee to consider changing the town's form of government. They were concerned that of 9000 residents, only about 200 routinely came to town meeting. A well-spoken patrician-like man in a sweater and turtleneck chided the selectmen for not providing adequate education on alternative forms of government before embarking on such a project, and a less well-spoken man in plaid flannel declared that he likes town meeting just the way it is. They each got equal hearty applause.

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