Rule by grass roots

IN 1633, the hot issue facing residents of Dorchester was whether to put up fences to keep wayward cows off neighbors' pasture land. It was the state's first town meeting, and town leaders voted for a fence law to contain the meandering bovines.

In 1984, the issues facing Massachusetts towns are hazardous waste, municipal computer systems, video-game regulation, and housing projects for the elderly. But most towns still resolve these issues in the same way - through town meetings.

In the 351 years since that first meeting, some things have changed. Citizens no longer come to the meetings armed against Indian attack, and nowadays meetings are sometimes broadcast live over a town's cable-TV system.

But in other ways, town meetings have not changed much over the years. Each spring residents in towns across the state venture out to their high school gymnasiums or town halls to debate municipal finance, complain about city services, vote on zoning proposals, call town officials to task - in short, to govern the town. Some residents come armed with rhetoric; others just bring knitting needles.

These meetings have been called a ''classic form of democracy,'' the paragon of participatory politics. But more and more people are questioning whether the town-meeting form of government can keep pace with the problems confronting the state's growing towns. Some say town meetings are outmoded forums favoring special interests.

Edwin Gere, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says town meetings are ideal for towns with 5,000 or 6 ,000 residents, like many of those scattered throughout western Massachusetts. Dr. Gere, also the town-meeting moderator in Leverett (pop. 1,471), says, in fact, ''it's the only way.''

But for many towns in the Boston suburbs, some with populations of more than 50,000, open town meetings are too unwieldy, he says. In a town of 30,000, where only 2,000 people attend the town meeting, ''Where is the democracy there?'' he asks.

Of the 312 towns in the commonwealth, 306 have held on to the town-meeting, board-of-selectmen form of government. (Selectmen, elected to serve as chief executives, hire and fire department heads, approve expenditures, and set policy.) The majority of these towns hold open meetings, in which every registered voter may participate, speak his piece, and cast his vote.

But some larger towns have switched to representative town meetings. Townspeople elect delegates to represent them. Only these representatives vote, although all residents may attend the meetings and testify.

Milton, just south of Boston, was one of the first towns to give up the open town meeting format and switch to a representative system. Last Saturday, 297 representatives and a sprinkling of other residents gathered in the high school auditorium to tackle the 56-page warrant - the agenda for the meeting.

Calm prevailed as the representatives decided who would be the measurer of lumber (James Kerr), whether former prisoners of war should pay automobile excise tax (nay), and whether the town should buy new voting machines (aye).

But one issue generated considerable controversy. The proposal, backed by the selectmen, would rezone a parcel of town land and sell it to a nonprofit organization that wants to build 40 units of housing for the elderly.

Frederick Barry, lawyer for Milton Plus Sixty Inc., said Milton needs more accommodation for senior citizens. The small housing community would be quiet and unobtrusive, and Milton townsfolk should not ''turn our parents away (from Milton) when they come to the conclusion that they must give up their large homes'' and move to smaller, more manageable quarters, he said.

But the town planning board and others argued against the proposal.

Esther Jepson, who lives near the property, said the land is ''very special'' and should not support such a dense population. A 40-unit development would encroach upon the wetlands on the property and could endanger the watershed, she said. The town's conservation commission agreed, saying the ''intrusion would be immense.''

Many residents took turns testifying. Some spoke of the need here for housing for the elderly. Others questioned zoning provisions in general and spoke of their concerns about ''snob-zoning.''

Resident Bernard J. Lynch asked representatives to ''listen to each other and to the Lord.'' He said delegates should consider Milton's large number of senior citizens who would ''like to spend the rest of their lives here.''

The voice vote was close, and moderator Charles C. Winchester called for a standing vote. When the numbers were tallied, 126 representatives had voted for the proposal - a majority, but not the two-thirds necessary for rezoning. Other proposals for the land will be brought up at the continuation of the town meeting in June.

The representative town meeting has been in effect in Milton since 1928, approved by a special act of the state legislature. In 1966 the legislature made it easier for local communities to choose other forms of government, yet few towns have abandoned the open town meeting.

Marilyn Harrington, a clerk in the Hingham selectmen's office, says she doesn't think her town will change to a new system. ''People like the privilege of going and having a say. And that's how it should be.'' She says annual town meeting - this year on April 23 - usually draws about 1,200 citizens.

About 18 percent of Bay State towns have moved to change formats, compared with 95 percent in Connecticut and Rhode Island, Professor Gere says. ''We're more traditional and conservative here,'' he speculates.

Forty-six Massachusetts towns hold representative town meetings. Six towns, which have departed from the town-meeting system altogether, are run by a town manager who takes direction from an elected town council.

While government may not exactly ''grind to a halt'' in larger towns that still rely on open meetings, Gere says it will ''stagger along'' under a growing burden until more modern processes are adopted.

''Lots of people are raising questions about the ability of modern municipal government to deal with the complexity of today's problems,'' says Daniel Soyer, communications director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. Even very small towns have budgets in excess of $1 million, he says.

''But what can happen is that one or two issues can dominate a meeting,'' he says. ''They can spend 11/2 hours debating a leash law, and 10 minutes on a $4 million budget.'' Town meetings may not give some issues - such as the budget - the importance they deserve, Mr. Soyer says. But, he qualifies, ''some meetings have intelligent, structured discussions on big issues.''

Framingham (65,000 people) and Milton (26,000 people) are towns that have switched to the representative town-meeting process. Hingham (21,000) and Chelmsford (31,000) still hold open meetings.

Norman Thidermann, Chelmsford executive secretary, says the town has 22,000 voters, but only 500 to 800 come to town meeting. It's usually held in the high school gymnasium, which holds 900 people ''really packed in.''

Mr. Thidermann says there's some concern that town meetings are ''dominated by special-interest groups.'' For instance, proponents of a specific zoning proposal could turn out in force and sway a vote in their favor. This might be true with special meetings, called to debate a single issue. ''But the annual town meeting draws a broad range of people,'' Thidermann says.

The three selectmen prepare the warrant, and the budget usually passes easily because ''most people feel it's been well prepared,'' he says. The topics that stir the most discussion here are zoning and bylaw changes, issues such as rent control in a mobil-home park, and regulations for hazardous-waste disposal.

The meeting is usually ''fairly peaceful and nonemotional,'' Thidermann says. This year it starts April 30, and will stretch over three or four Monday nights, depending on how much business there is.

Thidermann says some people have considered switching to a different system, but a referendum on adopting a town council failed six years ago. And, he adds, ''in government, you assume that if no one is complaining, you're probably doing a good job of delivering what they expect.''

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