Several years ago, in the course of a Twitter conversation with a fellow historic preservationist about obscure or obsolete New England town offices (the one in question was that of "hog reeve"), I came across this humorous portrayal of a mildly undemocratic, corrupt, and dysfunctional town meeting. It was originally published in New Hampshire Magazine back in 2008, and the URL appears to be a victim of proverbial "link rot," so I am glad I grabbed a portion of the text at the time and can share it here again.
Lest anyone leap to any invidious conclusions: I am doing so simply to illustrate the range of character of and opinion about New England town meetings. As one of the labels for the post should suggest, we in Amherst are fortunate to have a Town Meeting that--whatever one thinks of the views expressed at any given time--is serious, ethical, and managed by skilled Moderators. We should be grateful for that, because: "it could always be worse."
Still, you may see a few traits that you recognize.
I hate town meeting.
Town meeting is a laboratory sink for psychologists.
Every dreadful facet of human nature reveals itself at these gatherings. One must have the emotions of a sociopath to escape town meeting with one's soul intact.
I remember a town meeting in Temple years ago where the Police Chief, Russ Tyler, was attacked for using his cruiser too much. Poor Chief Tyler used his own car as the cruiser. He saved the town a lot of money using his own car.
But the mob at the meeting was sure he was getting away with something.
I remember thinking, "You people are crazy to be yelling at the Chief like this. He has a gun."
But Chief Tyler also had great heart. He was a straight shooter and a nice guy (although he did look like that sheriff in the old TV ad who says, "Boy, you're in a heap of trouble.")
In the end, the meeting vented itself and the Chief got his budget. But what heroic self-restraint that man showed.
Towns are made up of people who do not trust one another. It is and has always been "us and them."
The "new" people settle here with an idyllic view of living in a small town. They come from places where no one knows each other. Here they expected to find love.
What they find, of course, is resentment. The old Yankees don't trust the newcomers. Usually the newcomers are Democrats.
Some newcomer always stands up at the meeting and says something like, "My name is Ralph Lumpman and Loraine and I moved up here last fall from Darien. We bought the old Cosgrove place on Swamp Road. And I'd like to say that our moderator tonight is doing a bang-up job and I think we should give him a round of applause."
Then all the people, who recently moved to town, clap.
And there is always someone who informs the moderator that the flag is on the wrong side of the stage.
Town meeting gives people license. No one is expected to practice restraint.
Everyone is there to tell it like it is.
For 24 years of my life I was a small-town newspaper reporter and did news on the radio station in Peterborough.
I have attended over three hundred town meetings.
In my 50-plus years of going to town meetings I've seen a lot of changes. Years ago most towns were controlled by the families who owned the mills. In Milford it was Charlie Emerson; in Jaffrey it was D.D. Bean; in Wilton it was the Abbots; in Dublin, Robb Sagendorph.
If you didn't work for these men, someone in your family did. I used to watch D. D. Bean sit in the front of the hall at the Jaffrey Town Meeting.
Mr. Bean owned the match factory, in Jaffrey. When an article important to him came up he would turn and look back over his seat and note who voted "for" and who voted "against" the article.
Robb Sagendorph was the publisher of Yankee magazine and the Old Farmer's Almanac up in Dublin and he had double clout. Robb Sagendorph was also the moderator. If he didn't like an article he would close down discussion.
"We have had enough jawing about this matter," he'd say. "It's time to vote."