As town meeting dies, an old civic culture fades, too

After 192 years of town meetings, the people of Gilford still know how to conjure political theater.

Before the moderator opens discussion on the meeting's first item, octogenarian Joe Hoffman, with plaid shirt and white hair, raises his hand and calls for a point of order.

"I move that Mr. Millham [the moderator] step down," bellows Mr. Hoffman, claiming that Peter Millham perjured himself during a civil trial some years ago.

At a podium he's stood behind for 32 years, facing off against a longtime adversary, Millham gives a cool response and gets thunderous applause from the 600-some attendees.

"The people of this town have elected me to do this job, and I'm going to do it," he says.

Messrs. Hoffman and Millham are what residents here call "town characters." And it is their Webster-Calhoun-like rivalry, among a half-dozen other internecine battles, that many attendees so look forward to on the second Wednesday of every March.

The town meeting, in which residents gather to debate and vote on issues like taxes and building projects, has long been considered the purest form of democracy. In many New England towns, the institution dates back to the Colonial period. Yet despite the flinty passion that many residents bring to the event, the town meeting here may not last far into the 21st century.

Like 50 New Hampshire towns before it, Gilford Tuesday night voted to make Wednesday night's town meeting its last, primarily because so few people show up. Even in towns where the meetings persist, attendance is sinking.

The shift is rooted in changing demographics, and many people here see this most Yankee of institutions as an inevitable casualty. "Society here has changed to the point that direct democracy may be inadequate," says Millham.

In the 19th century, it was not uncommon for 70 percent of eligible voters to turn up for town meetings. Families from outlying areas would sometimes travel 20 miles to the meeting house, picking up factory workers on their way in. Boys hawked gingerbread on nearby street corners.

The issues were often so contentious that brawls became commonplace. The town ultimately built an enclosed passageway to the ballot box that was guarded by a burly constable.

Today, jousting between local titans like Hoffman and Millham is common. But for the most part, even with serious issues on the table, the people of Gilford are nonplussed. Only about 15 percent of eligible voters show up. "You see rows and rows of women knitting," says librarian Sandra Eakins Preiswerk. "The reason they knit is because the meeting is incredibly boring."

The dread with which many New Hampshire residents now view town meetings comes largely from changing state and town cultures.

One change is that Gilford's population has risen 35 percent since 1980. Many new residents come from out of state and, having never participated in such an event, might just as soon think it's some mass tai chi experiment on the center green. As towns grow, even longtime residents are deterred from showing up because issues seem more distant and problems more complex.

"People lose that sense of intimacy with their government and it becomes more abstract," says Joe Ford, a former political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, and a selectman in the town of Lee.

That's why several New Hampshire towns have replaced boards of selectmen with town managers and town meetings with town councils - a form of government more common to big cities. Other towns, like Gilford, have elected to vote on political agendas at the ballot box rather than at meetings. Some hope that option will increase participation. And for those determined to trim town budgets, the ballot tends to be a better route: Because budgets are more commonly rejected via ballots than via town meetings, towns can fall back on a more bare-bones financial plan.

But many believe the move away from direct democracy will have dire effects on towns' civic culture.

"On most issues, you have very little opportunity to debate with people who aren't your friends, and who don't have like-minded views" says Dale Dormody, a web designer who moved to Gilford from Chicago two years ago. "We're going to lose that."

Even the unconscionably bored at this meeting admit to nostalgia. Nancy Frost brought her knitting here because her mother said it would be rude to play her guitar. She says she learns from hashing out issues. "The give and take, the interaction, is important to me," says Ms. Frost, an English teacher.

About 20 Gilford residents spoke up in the main debate of the night over a proposal for a new library. The key conflict: the library would cost $2.6 million and require a property-tax hike.

The auditorium here in Gilford High School is silent as the moderator reads the result of the vote. A set design for the school's March production of "Little Shop of Horrors" sits behind him. The measure did not come close to passing, he says.

That comes as bad news for Anita Hewitt, who's been an librarian for about 40 years and lobbied hard for the new construction. Still, she takes solace from the pageantry of the event, particularly the antics of some conspicuous residents. Her favorite: town benefactor Arthur Tilton who for many years inexplicably wore lederhosen to every meeting.

"Colorful people add a lot to these sorts of things," she says.

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