I hadn't been to a town meeting since I left my New England hometown for the big city years ago. But last March, while attending town meeting in my newly adopted Maine village of 3,500, I was vividly reminded that if anyone wants to see a microcosm of democracy in action, a town meeting is the place to do it. There's plenty of time for discussion after motions have been seconded. One vote for each registered voter present. The majority rules. Not only that, but the governing body of the town - the three selectmen, along with the moderator, town administrator, and town clerk - all sit accountable before the voters gathered at the fire station.
The outgoing selectman remained there until noon, replaced after lunch by the new member elected the day before. After the moderator had called the meeting to order by thumping the table with his gavel, all in attendance stood and pledged allegiance to the flag. (That's how every public event in my town begins, with the pledge to the flag. I like it.) Then we sat down again on our folding chairs, rows of them set up in the space usually occupied by the big red fire engines that were now parked in the broad driveway, noses pointed toward Main Street.
I opened my 104-page booklet listing the items to be voted on - all 65 of them. The good news was that precisely at noon the meeting would adjourn so we could all hike over to the New Church for luncheon provided by the ladies of the church. Town meeting would come to order again at 1.
During the morning session, Violet Thurston stood and posed a question, "What's the rule for when the town plows go out? Is it one inch of snow, is it two inches, or is it three inches? Bucky got stuck trying to turn into my driveway, so I want to know, what's the rule?"
The moderator paused before calling on the road commissioner, who stood up in his black-and-red-checked L.L. Bean jacket and drawled, "Well, the general rule of thumb we use is two inches in town and six inches in front of Violet Thurston's house." The voters roared, as Violet sat down indignantly on the hard surface of her folding chair.
LUNCH at the New Church was everything I'd hoped it would be: a variety of salads - molded, tossed, three-bean, and coleslaw - lasagna, chicken pie, broccoli-rice-and-chicken casserole, hot-dog casserole, baked beans, rolls, brown bread, and pies. It was also an opportunity to congratulate the newly elected selectman, and most important, for camaraderie. I sat across from the man who plows the sidewalks when it snows, which it had been doing pretty regularly since early November. "Only been able to use the blower twice," he commented wryly. "The other 10 times, I've had to plow.
"You sure do a great job," I said, "and I, for one, appreciate it." He looked down at his plate and stuffed more casserole into his mouth to cover his embarrassment.
After lunch, we trotted back to the fire station for the afternoon session. Many of the items we voted on were budgetary. Members of the budget committee, 17 in all, were present to provide a rationale for their recommendations. The number of affirmative and negative votes given each item by the budget committee and the selectmen were listed after the items on the agenda in the booklet we each had. A selectman or budget committee member was free to rise and justify his or her dissenting vote. Three-percent salary increases were provided for all town employees. The selectmen didn't fall into this category, and their token $2,100 stood.
When it came time to vote on giving $300 to the Greater Portland Red Cross, I could remain seated no longer. I raised my hand and was recognized by the chair. "What did we give last year?" I asked.
"The same amount," was the reply.
"In view of the ice storm, I think it would be a good idea to raise it," I said.
There was a long silence, during which the moderator looked straight at me. "I can't do it," he said solemnly. "It needs an amended motion to be raised." I rallied and made a motion to raise it to $500.
"Do I hear $600?" the moderator rejoined, quickly adding, "just joking."
My amended motion was seconded and passed unanimously. Could I have gone for $600? Maybe, but this being my first town meeting, I didn't want to be tagged as the big spender in town.
*About the accompanying poem: In 1921, Carleton Mills, our local versifier, began to record in verse the events of each town meeting. In 1994, his complete collection of 41 town-meeting poems was published by the local historical society. Here, at right, we reprint excerpts from Mr. Mills's 1957 poem.