Town Meeting Time
Carl Sandburg (1878–1967). Chicago Poems. 1916.
Your Town Meeting season has about ended, and the periodic cry to do away with them has already begun. Of the state's 351 communities, 300 use Town Meeting to do business, including 260 towns that hold open Town Meetings. On Cape, all have town meetings except Barnstable, which chose to adopt a dysfunctional Town Council. Another town, Winthrop, which recently made the same choice said, ``There was a sentiment out there that having about 300 people make decisions on a $32 million budget at best twice a year was something that didn't structure us for the most efficiency,'' said Winthrop Board of Selectmen Chairman Martin O'Brien. They will soon learn that government functions best when it is least efficient. It’s when they get efficient that they become dangerous.
The Massachusetts Moderators Association, the trades-union of small-g government, has issued the following warning, ``If this institution is going forward we have to think of ways to fit the current culture. It is tough. It's not farmers sitting in an auditorium on a Saturday afternoon. It's people with soccer programs, gardening and other interests,'' said North Andover Town Moderator Charlie Salisbury, who is also president of the Massachusetts Moderators Association (MMA). The MMA's Town Meeting 2020 committee is tossing around such high-tech ideas as electronic voting, Internet debate forums and PowerPoint presentations. Already, moderators are seeing voters file into meetings with laptops and cellphones to tell their neighbors when a ``big'' vote will take place.”
To Porcupine, a really stressful spinning class just isn’t in the same catagory of importance as an annual life and death struggle to hoard enough food to last during a New England winter, so the ‘too busy’ excuse doesn’t wash. Likewise, the people with cell phones and Blackberries (banned from every town meeting that Porcupine ever attended!) aren’t really very different from the exodus of police and firefighters as soon as their contracts are ratified, leaving the rest of the warrant, which includes their children’s school budget, to the tender mercies of close-purse elders who are in no mood to squander tax dollars on mendicant children.
Actually, this remote participation began a while ago, when public access television gave people ways to watch Selectmen’s Meeting while in the comfort of their home. Not long ago, a little after eleven p.m., a tired Jane Otis of the Dennis Board wailed, Who is WATCHING US at this hour? Well, Porcupine was, albeit from a celestial perch, as were many other Dennis residents who find the shows addictive. One such resident, whose name rhymes with ‘air conditioner’, is notorious for hopping in his car and driving over to Town Hall to comment live.
And Lou is honoring the best of Town Meeting by doing so. Those 260 towns with open town meetings adhere to the purest form of democracy on earth. Every citizen is free to express an opinion, and attempt to sway fellow citizens to their point of view. The moderators vary in style – a musical comedy specialist in Provincetown, a leisurely three night meander in a few others, one town notorious for its brusque, last-man-standing style, with no questions answered and no amateurs allowed – but each chooses how its budget, policy and town will be ordered for the forthcoming year.
The biggest problem is the voters from ‘away’ – retirees who have never participated in such a forum, and who are cowed by the idea that THEY will decide if the police chief should get a new station. No, no, EXPERTS, they should do that! Many newer Cape residents are thrusting power away with both hands, uneasy in the requirement that they ARE the City Hall they griped about all their lives. And of course, power delegated is power lost forever.
A pox on internet voting, electronic debate forums, and other such sanitizing forces. We want blood on the floor, hardy souls who shout ‘NO’ as the tellers prepare to take the count, sneering at the lack-wits who hold up their paper token against us, and the ability of a single sensible person to make their way up to the mike and change the mind of 300 people with a well placed question. In person, personal, and populated.
We need a Town Meeting primer class, to help new citizens make the transition from victim to all-powerful body. If the Moderators Association won’t do it, it’s time we all take responsibility ourselves, or the last best hope of mankind shall be buried under an inexorable lava-like creep of bureaucracy.