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Old-Fashioned Democracy - With All Its Foibles and Quibbles

By Sally A. Adams / March 6, 1990

THE New England town I live in will hold its 339th annual town meeting in a few weeks. I missed the first 300, but in the remaining years I've learned a bit about this pure, old-fashioned democracy, this forum where every citizen has a vote and a voice, this often entertaining, sometimes boring, show of human foibles and quibbles. Let me introduce the cast of characters. The selectmen issue a warrant for town meeting, as they have done here since 1651, and order the town constable to ``notify and warn the inhabitants'' that it will take place on a certain day. They still quaintly say, ``Hereof fail not, and make due return of this warrant with your doings thereon, unto the Town Clerk at the time and place of meeting aforesaid.''

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The date was originally the first Tuesday in March, because the legal year began in March, up to 1752. Many towns have held to that date. Traditions don't change easily in New England. Besides, Town Meeting Day was the day to plant tomato seeds in a box on the windowsill, and you didn't fool around with a date like that.

The constable duly reports that he has posted copies of the warrant in five public places. Lately he is more likely to use supermarket windows than trees or mileposts or the meetinghouse door.

The moderator conducts the meeting. His job hasn't changed much over the centuries. He has a microphone now, but his most important tools are still a gavel, a sense of fair play, and the ability to control the meeting even when something controversial, like a leash law, comes up. Animals have always caused trouble with the neighbors. Who knows what rhetoric filled the room before the town clerk recorded, in 1775, ``Voted, that swine go att large this year.''

Larger issues, too, were thrashed out in the old days. At one notable meeting the town voted ``... we therefore if the Congress Declare the Coloneys Independant of Great Britain will suport said Declaration with our lives and Fortunes.'' And at the same meeting, ``Voted, That no African or Other Person be held in Slavery During Life.'' Our votes lately have not been on such stirring, high-minded questions. Rezoning for an industrial park hardly compares.

THE selectmen spend untold hours working for the town. They must deal with everything from the demands of state and federal government to street lights and potholes. They will have to listen to at least one voter, unclear on the concept, grumble, ``If I ran my business the way you run this town....'' Three hundred years ago, our selectmen were worrying about Indian raids and offering a 10 shilling bounty on wolves.

The school committee comes to the meeting hoping they won't have to defend everything in their budget from the superintendent's salary to the measuring cups for the Home Ec department - a hope seldom fulfilled. The voters will question school-bus routes; argue about which we need more, computers or band uniforms; and deplore ``unsuitable'' books in the school library. They will mention their own credentials. (``I happen to have a degree in education....'' ``Believe me, when I went to school we didn't....'') Critics of the school budget trot out their favorite word, ``frills.'' Opponents of cutting three-tenths of 1 percent accuse the town of ``short-changing our children.''

The uninformed often take a sudden interest in town affairs at town meeting time, hoping to keep real-estate taxes down. Although a proposal for new sewers has been in the papers for weeks, they demand, ``Why are these things sprung on us?''