Town meetings: folksy democracy

Thomas Jefferson never lived in New England, but the early American patriot from Virginia was impressed with its town meetings. He termed them "the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation."

Despite population growth and the increased complexities of modern life, once-tiny Yankee villages are tenaciously clinging to the 3 1/2-century tradition of folksy democracy in action.

These yearly do-it-yourself government sessions, now in full swing in Massachusetts, are wrestling with a myriad of challenges ranging from solid-wast disposal to pay raises for inflation-squeezed employees.

Some town meetings, as in the past, are able to take care of everything in a matter in a few hours at a single session.

Many, however, are finding it increasingly difficult to to do so. Four to six sessions, on consecutive nights or spread over several weeks, are not uncommon, especially in some larger towns where allowing everyone "their 2 cents worth" in debate slow proceedings.

A few dozen Massachusetts towns, many of them in the Greater Boston area, in recent decades have abandoned open participation at the meetings. A more workable arrangement, they have found, is to elect town-meeting members to make the decisions. Other interested townspeople may observe from the sidelines.

Even in towns where everybody can have a piece of the action, the town-meeting function has changed somewhat, with more authority vested in boards of selectmen and various other elected town bodies.

But there is little sentiment in most communities for shifting to some other form of government, even though poor attendance at town meetings is a frequent problem. Nowadays needed quorums are sometimes hard to come by, resulting in postponements.

In smaller towns, police and others are sometimes dispatched to round up enough people so a meeting can begin. The old fishing village of Marblehead, Mass., for instance, plans to send town criers through the streets to rally residents for its May 5 gathering.

Although it may result in less debate and shorter sessions, low attendance also makes it easier for special interests, such as town employees, to get their measures approved.

While town warrants, the formal agendas for the meetings, vary widely both in length and content from one community to another, the biggest and most widely debated item is the municipal budget.

Unlike last year, when cost-pruning was prevalent at these annual sessions, the current round of meetings is producing generally bigger budgets. Appropriation increases offered from the floor are more readily accepted.

Marjorie Battin, president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association and former chairman of the Lexington Board of Selectman, notes that in her town meeting this year backers of spending increases have generally had little difficulty winning the two-thirds vote support needed to override the now year-old, state-imposed municipal budget cap.

This included a $510,000 appropriation for a new curbside trash-collection program made necessary by the state-ordered closing of the Lexington dump.

In neighboring Bedford, the big issue at the recent town meeting was the talking by eminent domain of a tract of land for new town wells. The town's wells had had to be shut down because of contamination, forcing the purchase of water from another municipality.

Other town-meeting issues sparking citizen discussion, if not oratory, include proposals for regionalized services between several adjoining communities, local school closings, zoning changes, and new snowplows and graders for highway departments.

The Bay State's smallest town, Mount Washington, for example, has on its May 6 agenda a measure to increase the responsibilities of the roads supervisor, the only full-time employee. He would do double-duty as chief of police as well.

This rural hamlet, nestled in the southwestern corner of Massachusetts a stone's throw from both Connecticut and New York, now has only one part-time policeman to serve its 78 residents.

About half of Mount Washington's 59 voters are expected to attend the annual session in the century-old white clapboard Town Hall. A year ago local citizens went on a spending spree, nearly doubling the budget and boosting the property tax rate from a modest $18 to $33.75.

"We don't have much in the way of services, and most of what we spend is for roads which we must have since our people have to go out of town to work and shop," explains Alan Copland, chairman of the Mount Washington Board of Selectmen.

Mr. Copland, a lifelong town resident and publisher of the Berkshire Courier in Great Barrington some 12 miles away, hopes that for funds for a part-time secretary to serve the town offices now manned entirely by volunteers.

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