Saturday, May 28, 2016

Town Meeting: purest participatory democracy--or "mental torture, in which the victim actively collaborates"?

"Town Meeting was absolutely awful last night."
"How bad was it?
"It was SO bad that...."

Town Meeting under the magnifying glass

It reads like a corny joke, but it was in fact a conversation I had many times last week, and there was nothing funny about it.

Like many other Amherst and New England residents, I've occasionally poked good-natured fun at this venerable democratic institution because it is so much a part of our culture and identity: it reveals our essential nature, brings out the best, the worst, and the silliest in us.

The issue has become more acute, though, since voters this spring approved a Charter Commission to review the form of Town government, a process that could result in any of several recommendations, including abolition of Town Meeting. Some would relish that outcome, others would fight it to the death. Part of the decision may turn on how effective Town Meeting proves to be under the magnifying class of increased scrutiny in the coming year. The omens are not good. In the past, I thought, the prospect of a Charter vote forced residents to be on their best behavior. Not this time. If anything, the atmosphere is more charged than ever.

The previous Town Meeting sessions this spring already displayed a few foibles and failures (1, 2, 3), but May 16 far surpassed anything we had seen. For a variety of reasons, the debate degenerated into unadulterated nastiness.

The no-go zone

The warrant article itself was simple and straightforward: The Jones Library, using money voted by a previous Town Meeting, is preparing a proposal for a building expansion in a highly competitive state grant program. It requested that the Amherst Historical Society (on whose board I serve), located next door in the Amherst History Museum, sell it a small piece of property that would facilitate this expansion. However, because a change in the dimensions of the Museum property, still zoned residential (a historical anachronism), would bring the remaining lot out of compliance with the zoning bylaw, it needs to be rezoned as business, the same as the Library (and rest of the block). This was the only question before Town Meeting: a vote on a zoning change to the Museum property, necessitated by technical requirements of the bylaw itself.

The Library made a political faux pas in bringing a large contingent
to the stage at Town Meeting, though only a few actually spoke to
the article (here: architect John Kuhn)
But (as they say on late night infomercials), Wait! There's more. The turmoil in Town Meeting was not about the technical zoning fix, as such, and instead, about the motivations behind it and the possible consequences.

Opposition derived from:
  1. Hope of using this article to block the Library expansion plan.
  2. Concern that the rezoning, although required by law, might trigger undesirable further sale/commercial development of the History Museum property (a chimera: the Museum would never allow that to happen).
  3. Blowback against the Town Meeting Moderator (he had provided an unusually wide latitude for discussion of a similarly narrow article the previous week, so his attempt to limit discussion to the zoning change, without reference to the merits of the Library expansion plan that occasioned it, struck many in the chamber as inconsistent and unfair).
The article attained a vote of only 93-91, nowhere near the required two-thirds majority.

No, really: how bad was it?

How bad was it? People who read the newspaper accounts (1, 2) asked what in the world had happened, and I told them that "deeply divided and often contentious" could not begin to communicate the atmosphere and tone.

I have never seen so many protesting "points of order," even in this body known for its love of that that parliamentary procedure. (One senior, very dignified and polite member of the body later joked to me that we should just charge a fee for each point of order, so as to discourage the practice--or raise needed revenue.) In clear violation of the rules of the house, speakers interrupted and argued with the Moderator, signaled their approval or disapproval of statements by means of applause, hissing, catcalls, or other audible interjections, and impugned one another's motives and character.

One really has to watch the entire session to get the feel of the nastiness.

But this excerpt--in which a comment, limited by the rules of the house to 3 minutes, dragged on for 13 as a result of disagreement between speaker and Moderator--conveys the frustrating nature of the exchanges.

One observer charged that the "display of churlishness, no-nothingness, scorn, mockery and outright lies" would have been more appropriate to the Nazi Reichstag or the French Revolutionary legislature under The Terror. I actually received a number of sympathy notes from Town Meeting members as well as the general public. Even some of those on the winning side were embarrassed by the behavior of their allies.

Institutional suicide on live TV?

As I have more than once explained, I have always had mixed feelings about Town Meeting:

• On the one hand, real pride in our centuries-old democratic traditions, and real personal as well as political appreciation of the opportunity to learn the views of the most politically engaged fellow citizens.

• On the other hand, frustration with the process, by which I mean less the length and inefficiency of Town Meeting (which is the deliberately crafted curse of most democracy--here taken to an extreme, to be sure), and rather, the increasing difficulty of tackling any complex legislation in a body of some 250 people.

If it disappeared, I would, quite honestly, miss it: both because of the decline in participatory government, and because I genuinely enjoy the debate.

Whenever people talk about getting rid of Town Meeting, as I noted several years ago, I hear the voice of Michael Cann, a refugee from Nazi Germany and an ardent Town Meeting supporter. He had no illusions about the flaws of the institution but cautioned against abandoning it as earlier generations had overthrown "messy" democracy in the name of fascist "efficiency." Each step away from broad-based democracy, he warned, reduced the opportunities for public participation in government--and in the process, citizen interest in public affairs. We had already gone from a town meeting open to all, to an elected representative town meeting of 240, and now what: a council of a dozen or fewer members?

Michael died four years ago, and I was sad because I had lost a friend. It was sad but not tragic: part of the natural and inevitable order of things. By contrast, what we witnessed last week was both sadder and more tragic because it was unnecessary and entirely avoidable: a self-inflicted death. I am afraid that we saw Amherst Town Meeting commit political suicide on live television. It is hard to imagine how anyone watching could conclude this is a desirable or even functional form of government. The irony is that the people responsible for this spectacle thought they were saving the institution by fulfilling what they see as its aggressive watchdog role.

And the future: return to sanity or renewed mental torture?

Although this week's Town Meeting sessions included the remainder of the most controversial articles--even one directly opposing Library expansion (1, 2)--which generated their share of heat as well as light (and yes, just sheer wackiness), the conversation was nonetheless more civil and restrained. Several people I spoke with, who had been about to despair last week--even some harsh critics of Town Meeting--felt encouraged and buoyed as the night drew to a close on Wednesday. Perhaps there was hope after all. Others warned that the optimists were deluding themselves.

Was the bedlam of that Monday night an aberration or a glimpse of the future? I could not help but think of "The Fallen Sparrow" (1943), an underappreciated anti-fascist film about a Spanish Civil War veteran pursued by Nazis. In one of the most chilling scenes, the evil Dr. Skaas explains the essence of torture to the protagonist, who had experienced it firsthand in Spain. He contrasts the mere physical torture of the Ancients with the more sophisticated cruelty of Asia, epitomized by the infamous water torture, which combines the mental with the physical:
Dr. Skaas: Then—and here is the principle of all modern torture—release is given: the dripping is stopped, the victim is revived, just at the borderline of sanity. Then: ah, then, comes an interval during which the victim tortures himself—waiting, knowing that the operation will be repeated, and it is repeatable, most assuredly, with perhaps several new variations. You see the point?
Barby [the protagonist's girlfriend]:  How perfectly ghastly!
Dr. Skaas: You see the beauty of the idea? Mental torture, in which the victim actively collaborates.

Town Meeting, too, "will be repeated . . . with perhaps several new variations." But which is the real Town Meeting? Is the torment really over, or was that just a momentary respite? I want to hope for the best, but in the meantime, we wait and worry.

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