Town Meeting

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I sit in this predictably tedious, sometimes entertaining and occasionally moving civic gathering that we call town meeting and I marvel at the small miracle of pure democracy that unfolds each year for us toward winter’s end. Despite the bitter temperature and the snow that’s predicted to begin falling in a couple of hours, we’ve gathered as a town in our worn-down school gymnasium.  Here we pledge allegiance to the republic, question our elected authorities and display in our far corner of this one, indivisible nation some divisiveness and some cohesiveness of our own.

We do neighborliness well here. You walk in and Sally checks you off at the door. After your first town meeting, you’ll never have to tell her your name again. She’ll hand you a tiny slip of yellow cardboard, the symbol of your enfranchisement. It’s your ticket to say what you think everybody needs to hear and to cast one vote on what we all need to decide. Norman Rockwell once told of being stymied trying to decide how he would depict “freedom of speech,” one of his famous quartet of paintings depicting the “Four Freedoms.” One evening he went to a New England town meeting where he watched everyone in the room listen politely to a citizen spouting views that Rockwell knew nobody else agreed with. “That’s it, that’s freedom of speech,” he thought, and he went on to paint what he experienced that night.

That’s a pretty good description of the spirit that prevails in this tiny town each year on a Tuesday evening early in March. The meeting’s moderator welcomes us and opens the assembly.  He’s a likable fellow who happily possesses the three most important qualifications for the job: a passion for fairness, a ready sense of humor and a dedication to keeping everyone moving through the long, wearisome agenda.

The big issue at tonight’s meeting concerns funding for the local library. As if we need reminding that they’re on top of things as our fiscal watchdog, the town’s finance committee has once again recommended that the library not receive any funding this year. It’s the only non-profit request for support that the committee declined to endorse. The library, which is located in a neighboring municipality, serves a large segment of our town’s families with its cultural, educational and high-tech services. Some see this item as a “non-essential” request. Others figure that we’d never be able to provide such quality services if we had to do it on our own.  In a split vote, the meeting decides to fund the full library request.  The measure passes by a 60-40 margin.

That’s pretty much how our town breaks down politically: there are perhaps a few more social progressives than there are fiscal conservatives but with our strong independent streak, folks are likely to move from one camp to the other, depending on the issue at stake.  But it all seems to work, although sometimes I wonder just how it does. I suppose it’s because we know we all have to live together and a lot of us are related to each other by blood and marriage!  You learn that things go easier when you try to be flexible and do your best to get along. But mostly I think things work because we share a feeling that we all need each other. Whether we vote one way or another, whether we’re the folks doing okay or we’re part of families that are barely getting by, whether we were born and raised here or have come to town “from away,” we all know we need each other and depend on one another. We may fight and hold grudges and tell unflattering stories about each other, but in the end, it feels like everyone matters in this small place  — nobody’s unimportant.

The evening wears on and  now we face the last major hurdle: the school budget. This is when the finance committee gets out its sharpest knives. The overburdened school superintendent hopes to cut some corners and wants us to approve an item that involves some creative accounting maneuvers. Nothing dishonest, mind you, just a shortcut, a sleight of hand hidden somewhere deep in this huge, overcomplicated budget. But, as my grandmother used to say, sometimes you can be too smart by half. You might call his proposal an example of sophisticated budget management, but that’s not how the citizens see it and it gets short shrift at the meeting. The superintendent accepts the meeting’s corrections amiably and respectfully, however. It’s good to see our chief educator continuing his education in town!

Truth to tell, the man deserves our sympathy and support. He has a very tough job and so does our town, trying to keep our own small elementary school going. Every year, it seems, the state comes up with a new subsidy formula that further reduces our small municipality’s share of the funding pie. Going big is rewarded while staying small gets punished by the education know-it-alls in Augusta and Washington.  And so we struggle to keep open a school for 70 or more children. We do it because we want to continue the tradition of educating our kids in a familiar, nurturing setting where there’s one teacher for every 10 students, where all the children are neighbors, where they’ll  all grow up together in one special place. It’s a tough thing to fund and sustain, but we’re glad to know every day just where our kids are: right in the center of town, right in the center of our hearts.

The meeting’s over now, and as I climb into my car and start the engine, I can’t help sighing my thanks for this sweet, unpretentious place where I’m privileged to live. I drive home feeling grateful, grateful for good people who come out on a cold night to pledge their allegiance, to exercise their freedoms and to care for one another, as best they can.

4 Thoughts on “Town Meeting

  1. Another good one, Edward! This one left a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes,. I too am grateful for living in such a very special place where community is important and where we can all speak up, knowing that we need and care for each other! Bless you for your beautifully written words and for your warm hearted message!

  2. Hard to top Julie Nicholson’s bravo. Wonderfully written account on the importance of democracy and community. I too, still a “far awayer” to this part of rural Virginia, have happily and gratefully experienced this kind of Jeffersonian democracy at work here in our local Community Association. It’s a real treat. And so is your connecting it to your part of rural Maine.

  3. Cathy on March 5, 2015 at 5:01 pm said:

    A timely essay since our Town Meeting was 3/2/15. Our meeting was a special call since the regular annual meetings are in June and December. We only had 4 articles to vote for or against. The first three passed easily; the fourth (the reason for the special call) did not. It had been voted down in December by a larger audience. (On 3/2, we just made the quota to hold a meeting.) Several people, representing three points of view on the article, spoke. Those who wanted the plan to re-structure the interior of Town Hall, putting all town boards on the same floor, within a common area, sponsored the article. People, who opposed fixing the interior when the exterior of the building needs shingles and drafty windows need replacement, wanted to spend the money on securing the integrity of the building itself. And. others suggested that the money be spent on digital records and better computer programs to modernize and streamline the output of the various offices. Each person spoke politely and used notes or research to enhance his or her point of view. As a new town meeting member, I found myself enjoying the process and recognized many familiar faces. My husband has been a member for over 40 years, but I was never interested. Actually, I did not run for this position. In January of 2014, we, in Precinct 2, received a letter stating the precinct did not have enough representation. My name was on the list as an eligible candidate. I did not reply because I was not interested in the “politics” of the town. A month later, I received notice that I had been elected to a three year term by some of the people on the eligibility list. I missed the first meeting in May since we were away. When December came, I dreaded going to my first meet, but I discovered that even though it lasted well into the night the time passed quickly because the process was interesting.Now, after my second attendance, I find that I do enjoy going to this community endeavor. Your essay struck a chord in me: freedom of speech, a precious gift, not to be taken lightly.

  4. Not sure where this email ended up but I am just now seeing it and once again being “amazed” at your amazing writing about a subject I know all too well. I have moderated our town meeting here in Halifax, Vermont for 20 years and you hit the nail on the head in your description of the “purest form of democracy” on the face of the earth. Do you know why town meeting is exclusive to New England? Many of the early towns were established before the state were set up so the local towns HAD to have a strong government. Halifax, Vt was established in 1750 while the state of Vermont was not established till 1777. Once you get away from New England most of the states were drawn before many towns were formed. Being that the early settlers were originally from across the pond, they used the Parliamentary Procedure Process. Good old Roberts Rulers, got to love them for keeping Law and Order in what can be,and most times is, a very stressful gathering of opposite minds. From a moderators perspective, Wow, I have seen it all. I will retire next year, sadly, give another the chance to oversee this amazing gathering where the pot luck lunch can sometimes be the only “peaceful” time of the day, Town Meeting Day that is!
    Thanks Edward …so enjoyed your writing
    Love Patti [Pusey]

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