At Large : We meet
One of the best ever public meetings occurred in 1972. The subject was the Nantucket Sound Islands Trust Bill, federal legislation introduced by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. It called for the feds to annex Nantucket, the Vineyard, and the Elizabeth Islands to protect us from ourselves. Fortunately, enough Islanders worried about how, if the bill passed, we might protect ourselves from the feds.
A complex set of rules would have prevented all development outside then existing town centers and shift ownership of all open lands to the Secretary of the Interior, to be held in trust for the American public. Islanders, the opponents argued, would become wards of the state.
Needless to say, most Vineyarders did not welcome Senator Kennedy's plan for their futures, and they demanded to hear from someone about the bill and why it had been proposed. The senator sent K. Dun Gifford, a Nantucket summer resident who was the main brain behind the legislation.
The meeting was held at the Federated Church on South Summer Street in Edgartown. It may be that the choice of venue had to do with giving Dunny - as friends and foes referred to the smart, connected operative - sanctuary in the face of anticipated rancor. If so, the plan didn't work. A celestial bolt steaming through the roof would have been utterly unremarkable. The weaponry was the opposite of heavenly but as furious as if it had been hurled by a god.
As he stood in the pulpit facing the most withering verbal fire, Dun must have wondered if he was being rewarded for the waywardness of an insufficiently pious youth. He was more than up to the task.
Although things did not turn out well for Senator Kennedy's bill, despite the holy setting, where a debate takes place can affect its outcome. Dim halls, uncomfortable chairs, and uninspiring architecture can speed the decision making. The opposite also holds. Consider Oak Bluffs, this annual meeting season. Oak Bluffs voters had sumptuous accommodations, the first two nights at the high school's performing arts center, the last two at the nearly new and splendid Oak Bluffs School. Four town meeting nights, a record one hopes will not be broken. Next spring, the annual meeting night might be scheduled for a marquee pitched at Ocean Park. Bring a blanket. Such a venue would inspire voters to do their business briskly and fold their tents. You might say that's not the way to make good decisions on important questions, but history shows that extended debate, such as occurs for instance in Congress, more often than not just makes things worse.
Tisbury town meetings in the school gym benefited from the size of the hall and the poor acoustics. The main debater years ago was a town employee known as Speed Andrews. He favored a position at the back of the gym, and when he rose, as he did frequently, to chew on a question before the meeting, he was hard to hear. Invited to come to the front or to a microphone, Speed would wave and snarl and insist on speaking from his seat. His words tumbled incomprehensibly from his mouth, sounding like a raging gurgle of water running over a steep, pebbly streambed. Not a single word was distinguishable from any other. The speech had absolutely no effect on the decision. Cavernous spaces can be the assembled voters' friend.
Still, the really terrific meetings happened in Edgartown four decades ago, when town affairs were decided in the auditorium on the second floor of the town hall. Buzz Hall used the auditorium as a movie theater year-round, except when it was needed for town meeting or voting. Folks would gather there to vote the budget or argue about the personnel rules, and if the issue turned out to be a sticky one - say, stiffening the zoning rules - some guy would raise a ruckus in the back. He had probably just rolled over from an Oak Bluffs watering hole, where he'd stopped after work and lingered till happy hour ended.
"Start the movie," he would holler. "When does the movie start?" And everyone would howl with laughter. Really, what more can you expect from a meeting?