Wednesday, June 25, 2008

It happened at town mee'in

Really good reasons to move to New England:
a) Sports
b) Foliage
c) Town Meeting

Open Town Meeting is the best and the worst of every committee, board of directors, family time-share on the Cape meeting you have ever been a part of, with grit. It is the event that helps you understand why we say "the only politics that count are local."

Here's how it works:
The Board of Selectmen (BOS) and several committees run things in Town. Just like Ways & Means runs things in your church. They are elected by You, the people, and they manage day-to-day policy through the BOS meeting where you can complain about your neighbor's dog and ask for longer hours at the dump, and question when the bridge construction will be done. It is usually broadcast on TV, but is unwatchable. Like Congress.

All registered voters of the Town may attend, and special guests with prior permission may observe, but must sit in the gallery with Scout and Jem.

Here the People will approve the budget for the coming year, which includes all salaries of public servants, public works monies, emergency funds, and the like. These are the compulsory figures and are moved through pretty quickly. What you are really here for is the long program: the warrants.

Warrants are petitions, from town committees, the BOS or citizens at large asking the town to support a position which becomes approved or disapproved before your eyes in real time. By show of hands. You find out how susceptible you are to peer pressure at a time like this.

We had 34 warrants. For dramatic purposes, I present them in paragraph style:
Approve officer reports, accept town salaries, give a 3% raise, approve the budget, pay our bills, fund social services, donate to the food bank, buy a police car, back-pay the police, pay for real estate assessments, buy a new water tank, replace the field house, renovate the vets' memorial, remove oil tanks we found under the library (what? say more), give the director of the senior center a raise, make a change to the way the budget is presented, finish renovating the old fire house, a bunch of warrants about gaining easements (eminent domain, anyone?), exempt R&D companies from personal property tax (do we have any? just you wait), impose some fines, designate a big swath of land where a factory used to be as Priority Development, create a Bioscience zone (seeing the pattern?), add "cordials and liqueurs" to the wine and malt license, increase the number of liquor licenses, build a little league field, protect the rifle range, (they are not the same land), strip the fire chief of his hiring powers, given the powers to the BOS, then give the BOS the authority to delegate those powers to someone else.

It took me as long to write that as it did to get everyone seated.


Robts Rules
You don't get to use this enough in life. And nothing makes me happier than a bunch of tradesmen yelling out "Point-a ord-a Mist-a Mod-a-rayt-a." The folk in my Town know how to work that system. They know how to move the agenda around, how to challenge, how to pack the room with their supporters, how to use the word "proponent." They know the inside tricks like calling to "reconsider" after they have actually won, because everyone will vote Hell No, and then the idea can never be recalled in that meeting. If anyone wants a do-over, they have to change the law that was just passed.

Show of hands
This is seriously your show of courage. I had befriended a row-mate as one does in airplanes and jury pool rooms, and we noted we were completely surrounded by Ayes, and neither of us had our hands up. On the Nays, we both raised our hands, and nodded our approval of each other to remain in the row. I rarely abstain, unless I really feel like the topic is dumb or I have truly not formed an opinion in the 5 minutes you have to consider your options.

Citizen Outcry
The real deal, though, is the stand-up. Selectman reads a warrant, anyone can second, and usually does while he is still reading, and the Moderator says, "questions, comments, discussion." You must bounce up, be recognized, and head for the mike. State your name and your address. If you live in Del Boca Vista like I do, people will actually murmur. We are Outsiders, and merely tolerated for the tax money. We rarely show.

Expect to be challenged, and by someone with deeper roots and far more connections. In my town, he will also have a crazy nickname, and will refer to the dignitaries by their childhood nicknames. "I understand what Nubbin is saying, but Porkpie has been in that job for 14 years and is doin' a heckuva job."

The sudden ballot
Under certain conditions, a paper ballot is required. We had 2, and were headed for four, except for a turn of events that happened later. All rise, head for your precinct line, check in, get handed a Yes/No tear off ballot. I believe the locally-owned printing business may have this monopoly. Tear and drop, return to your seat. Wait while 300 people do this. Twice.

This is when I asked my voter-lady, "I'm the only one here, aren't I?" meaning of my carpetbagger village. She said, "You're the only one on that page."

The challenge count
This happens when the show of hands seems too close to call, and can be requested by anyone. Then that has to be voted on, and you can nest-vote yourself into Thursday, so this is not resorted to often. When it is, the Masons, or the Rotary, or some other gents who look just like that, walk through like deacons and count your section. Their word is bond.

That Nay vote I referred to earlier resulted in 152- Y; 154-N. I said to my row buddy, "That's you and me, friend," and felt (almost) like a real townie.

The quorum and its challenge
The quorum must be filled to start the meeting.
You must be seated for your vote to count.
You may, if you are a selfish jack*, sneak out after the things you wanted to vote on were completed.
At which point... someone challenged the quorum. We were all counted again, and found lacking.
Democracy came to a screeching halt.

We completed maybe a third of the warrants, and I am not sure what happens next. A follow-up meeting, I expect, and more of the same. The local discussion forums are full of talk, which always starts out above-the-line and intelligently argued, then eventually turns into either
a) why do you hate america
b) support the troops
c) shut up
d) You're not "from here"

take the bitter with the sweet.


  1. That's even bettet than a church board meeting or a regional assembly business session!! Some of the 'old' ways of doing things are not so bad after all. As has been said before, don't vote? don't gripe!! Marn

  2. We just fought having a Youth Hostle on our street...three doors down. Imagine 48 people crammed into 2,000 square feet with a PUB on the first floor. It brought flashbacks of the LIFE program at Simmons College circa 1992.

    The good news, 15 of us showed up at the Licencing Board--in the middle of the work day--to protest. The Gays, The Straights, The Singles, and The Greeks. We were all there. Protecting our neighborhood.

    Even in the big city, a group of thoughtful committed citizens can make a difference (thank you Margaret Mead).


Comments Build Community! We thank you for yours. Spam comments are not welcome and will not be posted.