Democracy where it's pure and never simple

In Winsted, Conn., residents decide the town budget line by line – often with tartness.

About 90 minutes into the annual town meeting, after mild debate over budget nips and tucks, things begin to heat up. As the chairman of the local independent party steps to the podium to address the more than 200 people before him, it's as if the whole room braces.

In this rural community tucked into the northwest corner of Connecticut at the confluence of the Still and Mad rivers – a place where just about everyone still knows each other by sight if not by name – David LaPointe's antitax stance is either embraced or despised. Accordingly, there are both cheers and groans when Mr. LaPointe moves to reduce the town's budget for next year by 7.5 percent across the board.

And then, in a scene that would make Thomas Jefferson proud, everyone rises from their seats. Carrying punch cards, they make their way to the front of the high school auditorium, where four voting machines have been set up. Older people with walkers and parents holding babies mingle. The curtains of the booths snap shut and open, as voters enter and exit. The lines advance, and democracy in Winsted moves forward – one lever push at a time.

In an era of national standardization and political homogenization, the New England town meeting is one realm where municipalities continue to demonstrate often quirky individuality. The tradition remains a cornerstone of politics in the region. It flourishes in Maine and Vermont in particular. But all the New England states have towns that still practice their own form of grass-roots government. In Connecticut, only 1 in 5 municipalities has turned to a professional council to appropriate town monies. The rest, in an almost even split, rely on referenda or town meetings.

"Even though it can lead to complications, it represents one of the few examples of participatory democracy, where people have direct say over the money their town is going to spend for public services," says Michael Morrell, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut.

Within this system, each town puts its own stamp on governance, and few are more unusual in their expression of democracy than Winsted. Here, people have their say once, twice, and often many times over. Winsted has opted for a combination of a town meeting, during which residents vote to reduce – but can't increase – individual line items in the budget, and a referendum several weeks later, during which the budget is approved or rejected.

After tonight's vote (or votes, as it will turn out, because someone else will make a motion to reduce the school budget by a million dollars), the budget will be released to a town-wide referendum on May 30. If it fails, the budget returns to the Board of Selectmen, who amend it for another town meeting and subsequent referendum.

It's a process known for its twists and turns, and for heated debate. "Sometimes it can turn into a free-for-all," says Michael Marciano, editor of The Winsted Journal. "You get name-calling, people telling each other to shut up, sit down, get out of here. It's also a little scary, because people have the power to decimate budgets and eliminate entire programs."

Winsted's approach is also infamous for its lengthiness. In 2004, for instance, the budget that was introduced in May was not passed until March of 2005. By then it had undergone seven iterations – that's seven times through town meeting and seven separate referenda.

"Too much," says Town Clerk Sheila Sedlack, who alludes to Yankee feistiness and the legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys in discussing Winsted's politics. "It's expensive and complicated, but I guess it's also democracy, with all its bumps and warts."

***

The first New England town meeting was held in 1629, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. That assembly was limited to men in good standing in the church, but it contained the essence of the one-person, one-vote premise that underpins American politics today, according to Joseph Zimmerman, a professor at the State University of New York and author of "The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action."

Thomas Jefferson called town meetings "the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government, and for its preservation." More recently, activist and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader – who was born and raised in Winsted and still considers the place home – has referred to the town meeting format as the purest form of democracy in the nation.

Many New England municipalities are moving toward a modified approach like Winsted's, where the meetings are combined with town-wide referenda. Others have adopted representational town meetings, in which neighborhoods elect members who then convene.

Each town meeting tends to reflect the personality of the town itself. Some are business-like and brief, others fractious and contentious.

Winsted's is idiosyncratic, as is the place. The town of 10,000 people actually goes by two names: Winsted is its location on the map, but Winchester is the name on official documents. (Technically, Winsted is considered the "city" at the center of the town of Winchester.) The town charter, which was amended about 10 years ago to require the inclusion of voting machines at all town meetings, also allows anyone who owns property valued at more than $1,000 a vote in local affairs.

Politics here also seem to operate in contravention of politics elsewhere. In Winsted, Republicans generally favor higher spending by the town than do Democrats – a stance that represents a pro-business, pro-growth approach – while the small but vocal independent party tends to be vehemently antitax.

Winsted's politics sometimes generate confusion even among those who know the place best. During the town meeting, the moderator, a precise man whose delivery can be avuncular or curt depending on whom he's addressing, refers to a man at the podium as an "independent."

"What was that?" asks the man as he returns to his seat. "I'm unaffiliated, not independent."

The moderator corrects himself. "You've got to watch your tongue in the town of Winchester," he says, to laughter and applause.

In other ways, town meeting in Winsted typifies those everywhere. Throughout, people stand to make heartfelt statements: "Whether it's a 5-year-old playing soccer or a senior playing bingo, this budget doesn't do them justice;" "It's a numbers game played out for political reasons;" "Somewhere in this town we have to extend trust to one another on behalf of our children."

A man takes the podium in defense of the recreation director, who's effectively been reduced to part-time status. After he finishes speaking, he lingers. "I want to say hello to my dad up in back," he says. "Hi Pop, I love you."

At another point the lights go out briefly but long enough for the moderator to ask, "Is there a mechanic in the house?" and for a woman to respond, "We had to cut his position."

LaPointe makes his motion to reduce the budget by 7.5 percent at around 8:30 p.m. By 9:15 the vote is in: 39 in favor, 171 opposed. Soon after, another member of the town's independent party, selectman Russell Dutton Buchner, makes his motion to cut the education budget by $1 million.

There are hoots and shouts of "What?"

Then comes a clear, lone voice: "Let the man speak!"

And so Mr. Buchner does.

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