Friday, April 1, 2011

Town Meeting: Do They Hate Us For What We Do or Who We Are?

As I recently noted, the low turnout in Tuesday's local election gives one pause for thought. At a moment when protests against dictatorship and for participatory government (whatever the complexities of the specific political constellations and possible outcomes) are rocking the Middle East in a spectacle captivating the attention of the world, the vast majority of us here in the safety of Amherst did not bother to vote (a mere 8.47%).  Aside from the fact that there were few contested races or hot issues, it is of course more generally true that voter turnout tends to be lower in societies with long-established traditions of democracy and elections.

Still, one wonders about the lack of candidates as much as turnout. It could well be that what Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe said of that office and contest applies here too: "the lack of challengers either indicates" that the incumbents "are doing a good job or no one else wants to do the job." And yet, it seems more problematic when applied to a 240-person Town Meeting than a 5-person Select Board.

We Amherst residents have something of a love-hate relationship with Town Meeting and our larger political culture (which, if you study Amherst history, seems to have its own tradition [1, 2] ). Twice in recent years (the first time in 2003), voters attempted to scrap our current  charter, with its system of Town Meeting and Select Board, in favor of one based on a mayor and council (that's the difference between a "town" and a "city" in Massachusetts law). The second time, in 2005 (1, 2), it was only narrowly defeated in an election that brought out 35.2 percent of the electorate. The so-called Charter Reform attempts arose because of a frustration with Town Meeting: its tone, its slow pace, and its outcomes (or lack thereof).

And yet the issue was complicated. I always recall what one ardent Town Meeting supporter, a refugee from Nazi Germany, told me.  He compared the lack of civic spirit and willingness to stand up for justice and democracy (what Germans call Zivilcourage) in his native Germany with his adopted New England's tradition of active participation and debate.  He had no illusions about the flaws of Town Meeting 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, not just citizen involvement but also citizen interest in public affairs. We had already gone from an open town meeting—in principle embracing every adult resident—to an elected town meeting, restricted to 240 members (24 from each of ten precincts), plus the dozen-odd officials. Now to reduce the number of citizens making decisions about the fate of the town by some 96%, to a nine-member council and mayor (with veto power) seemed to him a regression that could not be justified. It was a powerful argument.

I have to say that I think the last Charter referendum squeaker turned out to have a salutary effect all-around. It made clear to Town Meeting diehards just how deep the popular dissatisfaction and even anger ran. It made clear to Town Meeting opponents that, despite considerable popular sympathy for their complaints about the political culture, residents were not prepared to abolish this venerable political institution. And it thus conveyed the message to all:  we have to live together, so we'd better get our act together.

On balance, I'd say, we have learned that lesson well:  Town Meeting has become more efficient. It manages to get its business done while occupying fewer days on the calendar, thus reducing the demand on members' time (an oft-cited obstacle to greater participation, especially for families with young children). The tone is generally civil, the debate more focused and productive. There has of late been at least hypothetical talk of reducing the size of town meeting, so as to increase competitiveness and thus the actual representativeness of the representatives (empty seats and unopposed candidacies were among the issues that motivated Charter reform supporters), but for the time being that remains just talk.  For now, we work with what we have.

This is not to say that Town Meeting form of government (any more than Congress) cannot still be the source of silliness and frustration.  The piece from New Hampshire Magazine that I recently cited on the history of the hog reeve happened to be entitled, "I Hate Town Meeting":

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."
Of course, the system of mayor and town council is hardly perfect, either. The following episode of the old "Newhart" show seems somewhat confused in that it speaks in places of both "town council" and town meeting, but seems to depict the workings of the latter (perhaps the author was not familiar with the intricacies of New England government). In any case, no matter: the dilemmas and foibles can be universally appreciated. In episode 3 (full video here) newly arrived innkeeper Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) complains about a dangerous intersection in front of his establishment and wants the town to install a stop sign.  Local political honchos persuade Dick that, as a man of civic spirit who does not only complain but also proposes solutions, he should run for Town Council. In the clip below, he attends the first meeting:

(full video here)

It's nice to be reminded that things could always be worse.

Whatever your feelings on the institution of Town Meeting: better get geared up; we begin in just under a month. The Select Board is about to start reviewing and taking positions on the various warrant articles on Monday.

[updated episode description, V.2012]

No comments: