The importance of the New England Town Meeting is recognizable to any citizen who takes the time each year to attend and participate in this event. For residents of small towns in states like Massachusetts the Town Meeting has been operating for some 300 years with little likelihood that it is apt to disappear. In each town the format that the Town Meeting takes is unique and often a combination of town by-laws drawn up, amended and reconstituted over the years combined with local custom and community understandings past on from generation to generation. Regardless of the formula for operation the Town Meeting stands in so many communities, just like the tall spire of the village church, as something quite sacred and essential to the practice of democracy in this part of world.
When I attended our annual town meeting recently I was moved immediately by the surprising show of patriotism and community by those in attendance. The meeting was held in the building in town with the largest capacity, as in many towns that means the town high school. As there were important money items on the agenda the auditorium was packed. The moderator called the group to order and asked all to rise for the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance and a brief invocation. There was something really special about standing nearly shoulder to shoulder with neighbors and friends to join in the singing and saying of words in praise of our nation and our God, something that only happens at Town Meeting.
Back in our seats we settled in to a review of the proposed town budget. As the reading proceeded I could hear from time to time a sound like birds flapping their wings as 800 people simultaneously turned the pages of their budget handouts. Occasionally a voice would shout out “Hold” meaning they wished further discussion of a budget item when the reading had been completed. And further discussion there was.
As people came to the microphone to speak they announced their name and town address and offered amendments or comments. Some spoke beautifully, others dragged on ad nauseum, some shared a bit of humor, others quickly delivered the facts. But through the presentations this group of adults gave respectful attention and consideration to each speaker. Town meeting seems to bring out the best in personal manners and decorum because it seems all present are part of something bigger than themselves.
The official importance of the town meeting lies in its ability to achieve in short order the local legislating of town affairs. The unofficial importance lies in its ability to convey to local citizens regardless of education, personal history or wealth that they have a say in what happens in their community. This became crystal clear when an important expenditure was brought to the floor for consideration. Participants signaled their approval or disapproval by raising their hands. The moderator viewed the show of hands and determined the outcome. This is democracy in action plain and simple. The townspeople had spoken.
Or had they, No sooner had the moderator announced the results of the vote than a voice from the back of the hall called for a re-vote. People who participate in Town Meetings not only practice democracy, they learn how it works. In order to forward their individual agendas people research the local rules by which meetings are run and they make use of every available tool to get the desired results. And so a re-vote was called and the results were the same. Perhaps just as importantly that single person who had asked for a re-vote felt that he had participated in the system, that he was not being run over roughshod, that he was a part of the town deliberation.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Town Meeting in New England is that it demonstrates to any who choose to watch or listen, that it is possible for grown adults to conduct business together in an orderly and respectful manner. At Town Meeting people disagree but in the end they remember that they share a common care and concern for the welfare of this, their community. They accept the results as they unfold and they wait for next year’s meeting and another chance to participate in the democratic process.