New Englanders Rethink Government 'by the People'

Changing times are eroding the region's town-meeting tradition

IN a New England rite of spring, citizens gather in meeting places across the region to exercise their basic right of self government. There are no sound bites, hidden pork, or budget impasses. You simply raise your hand, state your mind, and vote how to spend your tax dollars.

As simple as this form of government seems, here in New England - where folks have conducted town meetings for centuries - a movement is afoot to find a more efficient way to decide municipal matters. In the past several years, communities in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont have opted to change their traditional form of government.

"There's a great deal of ferment going on with town meetings now," says Joseph Zimmerman, a State University of New York professor who studies town meetings.

The fact that many communities have opted to revise their town-meeting format indicates that government "by the people," in the most literal sense, is difficult to maintain in today's fast-paced society. Ironically, the change in New England is occurring even as Republicans in Washington are striving to put more power in the hands of the people and political reformers are embracing the town-meeting tradition.

In communities across the region, town meetings have been modified in a variety of ways. At financial meetings, the only item on the agenda is the budget. In some towns, citizens elect representatives to vote on issues, which are aired in meetings open to everyone. In others, elected representatives pass the laws, but all new ordinances are subject to a ballot referendum.

As this town-meeting season draws to a close - most towns' annual meetings are held sometime between February and April - a little-used town-meeting format has gained popularity. Hamlets across New Hampshire have chosen to decide their business on paper rather than in person, using an "official ballot."

It is a move, many say, that could be the first step toward dismantling town meetings altogether. Concord, Mass., home to small-government philosophers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, voted on a similar measure this month.

With this new procedure, an annual meeting would be scheduled, as always, during which town business is conducted and mundane are operations completed. The meeting is resumed another evening, as has been tradition, for controversial issues. Here arguments for and against are heard, and anyone in attendance may contribute. But rather than concluding the meeting with a vote of raised hands by participants, a ballot vote is scheduled. The revised budget and any additional items raised at the meeting are written on a ballot, which can be voted on by mail or at the polls.

Those in favor of the change say it will include more people in the decisionmaking process: While thousands vote, only hundreds show up for meetings. Critics argue that the very foundation of democracy - participation by an informed electorate - is being eroded. Without the opportunity to vote at the end, who will actually attend the discussion meetings? And without that discussion, on what will voters base their decisions?

The force behind reform is the changing times. Today, many New England towns are populated with white-collar commuters who have more invested in Boston, say, than Lexington, Mass. Dual-income families predominate. Many town folk have migrated from places without the town-meeting tradition or now spend the winter outside New England. Who, many ask, can afford to spare hours discussing road names, zoning details, and fire-engine purchases?

When the town meeting was designed, these communities were largely rural - and much smaller. Town meeting day was spent with neighbors - meeting first and sharing a potluck dinner at the end - at a time of year when farm needs were not pressing.

Indeed, the demise of town meetings could spell the end of the tight-knit relationship that New England townsfolk pride themselves in having, many say. "We really have community here," says Norman Beecher, a Concord resident who has served on various volunteer committees. "And in New England, town meeting is part of what makes community."

In parts of New England, residents still cherish their town-meeting tradition, and many speak eloquently of its democratic purpose. Maine displays the strongest ties to the tradition: 92 percent of towns hold town meeting. There, the slower-paced life and small size of towns have allowed the method to thrive, observers say.

Many New Englanders, though, are concerned about the push to put efficiency before good government. "The question is," says Bob Ambrose, New Hampshire's deputy secretary of state, "if you're going to have a participatory democracy, can you get away without participating?"

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