Old-Fashioned Democracy - With All Its Foibles and Quibbles

THE New England town I live in will hold its 339th annual town meeting in a few weeks. I missed the first 300, but in the remaining years I've learned a bit about this pure, old-fashioned democracy, this forum where every citizen has a vote and a voice, this often entertaining, sometimes boring, show of human foibles and quibbles. Let me introduce the cast of characters. The selectmen issue a warrant for town meeting, as they have done here since 1651, and order the town constable to ``notify and warn the inhabitants'' that it will take place on a certain day. They still quaintly say, ``Hereof fail not, and make due return of this warrant with your doings thereon, unto the Town Clerk at the time and place of meeting aforesaid.''

The date was originally the first Tuesday in March, because the legal year began in March, up to 1752. Many towns have held to that date. Traditions don't change easily in New England. Besides, Town Meeting Day was the day to plant tomato seeds in a box on the windowsill, and you didn't fool around with a date like that.

The constable duly reports that he has posted copies of the warrant in five public places. Lately he is more likely to use supermarket windows than trees or mileposts or the meetinghouse door.

The moderator conducts the meeting. His job hasn't changed much over the centuries. He has a microphone now, but his most important tools are still a gavel, a sense of fair play, and the ability to control the meeting even when something controversial, like a leash law, comes up. Animals have always caused trouble with the neighbors. Who knows what rhetoric filled the room before the town clerk recorded, in 1775, ``Voted, that swine go att large this year.''

Larger issues, too, were thrashed out in the old days. At one notable meeting the town voted ``... we therefore if the Congress Declare the Coloneys Independant of Great Britain will suport said Declaration with our lives and Fortunes.'' And at the same meeting, ``Voted, That no African or Other Person be held in Slavery During Life.'' Our votes lately have not been on such stirring, high-minded questions. Rezoning for an industrial park hardly compares.

THE selectmen spend untold hours working for the town. They must deal with everything from the demands of state and federal government to street lights and potholes. They will have to listen to at least one voter, unclear on the concept, grumble, ``If I ran my business the way you run this town....'' Three hundred years ago, our selectmen were worrying about Indian raids and offering a 10 shilling bounty on wolves.

The school committee comes to the meeting hoping they won't have to defend everything in their budget from the superintendent's salary to the measuring cups for the Home Ec department - a hope seldom fulfilled. The voters will question school-bus routes; argue about which we need more, computers or band uniforms; and deplore ``unsuitable'' books in the school library. They will mention their own credentials. (``I happen to have a degree in education....'' ``Believe me, when I went to school we didn't....'') Critics of the school budget trot out their favorite word, ``frills.'' Opponents of cutting three-tenths of 1 percent accuse the town of ``short-changing our children.''

The uninformed often take a sudden interest in town affairs at town meeting time, hoping to keep real-estate taxes down. Although a proposal for new sewers has been in the papers for weeks, they demand, ``Why are these things sprung on us?''

There was no warrant committee when the town was young, but now it's an important body. In the months before a town meeting, members put in hundreds of hours hammering out the best way for the town to spend and save its money. They make recommendations to the voters, and try to stay cool when someone asks - and someone will - ``Has anybody really looked into this thing?''

They explain how money in the stabilization fund differs from that in the reserve fund, reassure someone who is indignant that the town has ``free cash,'' and set straight some newcomer who says it's ridiculous to have the dog tax go to the library. (It's a state law.)

Yes, the newcomers! For some, this chance to be heard is a heady experience. (``This is my first town meeting, but I just want to say to you people....'') They sometimes sit in convivial groups, ready to find everything quaint and amusing, or alternatively, ready to find every town official putting something over on them. Their complaints often show that people have a way of buying houses without knowing all the facts, like the probable future of the lovely bit of woodland next to the lot line, or what it means when bulrushes grow in the back yard.

Fortunately, some of the newcomers will end up offering their time and expertise, and at town meeting a year or two later will be sitting on a town board and defending the budget.

Of late years, one-issue groups have appeared at town meetings. They tend to mutter and shuffle their feet until their article comes up, cheer if they win and demand reconsideration if they lose, and clump out en masse when the article is completed.

There were no one-issue voters in the old days. A man who did not attend the meeting was fined. Women didn't go at all, of course. A man was also fined for being late. Not so at present, when a lot of people come late because they know there won't be a quorum on time because a lot of people will come late.

In the course of my town meeting experience, I've collected some general truths:

Any proposal which doesn't increase this year's tax rate will pass.

A given meeting will either question every $100.00 increase in expenses, or it will expansively pass everything and throw in a raise all around - and nobody can predict which mood will prevail.

At least three knitting needles will be dropped.

Someone will ask what the article means which says, ``The collector shall use all means in the collection of taxes as the treasurer might if elected to that office.'' This time I'll try harder to understand.

Former selectmen will begin their comments, ``When I was a selectman....'' This habit, I am convinced, started with the second set of selectmen elected.

At the end of the meeting, everyone will feel public-spirited and responsible, in contrast to the townspeople who didn't get out and do their duty.

At one of my town's first meetings, it was voted to continue after sunset for the time of the burning of ``one Candell.'' (They had started at nine in the morning.) History doesn't say what the voters thought as they plodded home in the dark, but it's a safe bet that every man was satisfied that he had had his say, but a bit irritated that some of his fellow-citizens had been entirely too long-winded.

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