Town Meeting Time

As mouth-watering smells waft from casserole dishes warming atop a wood stove, the people of Strafford, Vt., open their town meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance: "... with liberty and justice for all."

"We hope," a voice murmurs, audible enough to elicit chuckles.

This year on Town Meeting Day in Vermont - an official state holiday that falls on the first Tuesday in March - more than 100 residents of this rural town gathered to speak their minds and vote on issues such as the town budget, a dump-truck purchase, and the selection of town officers.

"Everyone is responsible for the issues, to make sure things are running well," says Strafford resident John Freitag, after voting on the eight articles on the meeting's agenda.

For hundreds of years New Englanders have gathered in open town meetings like this one, debating issues large and small - sometimes with rancor - thereby participating in a direct form of democratic government practically unique to these former colonies.

"Aside from a few rural areas in Switzerland, New England is the only place in the world where town meetings take place," says Joseph Zimmerman, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Albany and author of "The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action."

The first town meetings sprang up in the Massachusetts Bay Colony around 1629. The original towns were religious settlements and their townsfolk were called on to make important decisions. The first order of business was to build a church, which also served as a town hall, and hire a minister. Out of necessity, a new form of self-government was created: a direct democracy by which people gathered to make their own laws and decisions affecting their town.

Poet James Russell Lowell, writing in the late 19th century, observed: "Puritanism, believing itself quick with the seed of religious liberty, laid, without knowing it, the egg of democracy."

To these early settlers' brethren back in Europe, still under the rule of kings, the town-meeting forum for making choices about a community's destiny would have been unthinkable. Bear in mind that this formation of direct democratic government by religious pioneers predated the American Revolution by roughly 150 years.

In the small, tightly knit New England communities, the town meeting evolved into both a cherished form of government and an important yearly community gathering.

Now, more than 200 years after the shot heard round the world, the future of open town meeting hangs in balance.

Declining interest and rising populations have caused some New England towns to shift from open town meetings to a format where interested people meet to debate the issues one day and show up to cast ballots another.

Further diluting the spirit of direct democracy is the representative town meeting, where residents elected by the voters decide the town's business.

In some growing towns, it would be impossible to fit all the voters in one hall. Due to swelling ranks of newcomers from cities who don't know about town meetings and often don't have the interest to invest hours in meetings that can meander into arcane discussions, some have dropped town meetings altogether in favor of elected councils.

"Town meeting is really on its last legs in Rhode Island," says Mr. Zimmerman, "due to a lack of interest and the increased services provided by the state." Despite the move away from town meetings in the faster-growing New England towns, Zimmerman concludes: "It's safe to say that in small rural towns, town meeting is well established with deep roots and will last another hundred years. It would be very hard to dig up the roots."

Steve Jeffrey, director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, is less optimistic: "We're worried. We've seen a decline in participation, just as we've seen a decline in participation in state and federal elections. Perhaps it's because people have money in their wallets and the school budgets have passed."

However, Mr. Jeffrey adds, "if there's a big issue, everybody shows up and there's tremendous participation. Participating and being at town meeting is the lifeblood of local government."

Back at the recent Strafford meeting is Laurie Berkenkamp, who alternately holds, nurses, and plays with her infant son, Simon. She attends town meetings because "everyone has a chance to be heard on equal ground."

She continues, "It's great to see everyone after a long winter. It's a great community gathering. It really starts off the spring."

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