Islanders who gather in annual town meetings beginning next month will join a select democratic fraternity. They are the Athenians of the modern age, the warriors of civil affairs who do their own hard work face to face, friend and neighbor, deciding the hard questions on their own, rather than sending representatives to do the difficult work of government.
Happily, some of the sausage making has been done in the primaries, which for us are the budget discussions, the finance committee interviews, the finance committee recommendations, the selectmen’s choices of this article or that. For Islanders, April is when we conduct the equivalent of the general election, on town meeting floor and in the voting booths.
“A town meeting is a legislature of citizens, for citizens, and by citizens,” Frank M. Bryan says. “The fact that each citizen of the town is also a legislator separates the New England town meeting from all other forms of democracy.”
Don’t be offended to be described as a legislator. Mr. Bryan, a political scientist at the University of Vermont, means well. He is the author of “Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works.” He is a student of town meetings, and a believer.
“Town meeting democracy is not representative democracy,” Mr. Bryan writes. “Representation was conceived as a natural substitute for real democracy — an effective way to insure some popular control over distant governments in large nations. Town meeting democracy is like the democracy of ancient Athens.” It has some of the characteristics of a plebiscite as well, or a referendum on the Roundabout.
In his 320-page book, Mr. Bryan reports the results of his study of town meeting behavior by 63,140 voters in 210-plus New England towns. He and his researchers studied more than 1,500 individual town meetings. He did not find the work tedious.
“Studying these meetings is a pure joy. Not because the outcomes are always correct. Not because the process is always (or even often) pretty. These meetings are a joy to behold because they suggest that common people can and will engage in the ancient dream of public, face-to-face decision-making, especially when the issues are difficult and the process challenging.”
The issues facing Island voters this spring are, as is often the case, difficult and expensive. It has been a rough several years, with declining real estate values, failing businesses, declining tax revenues, and town budgets exhibiting their natural urge to grow. So, choices will not be easy. Every choice imposes costs, and few costs fall equally upon each and every taxpayer and voter. As honorable as the town meeting’s work is, voters have over time found reasons to evade their responsibility.
“Town meetings have suffered a loss in attendance over the years,” Mr. Bryan reports. “Most of this decline can be attributed to increases in town size, which explains about 60 percent of the variance in attendance from town to town. But a decline in the number and variety of issues over which towns have control has deprived townspeople of the opportunity to make decisions that matter in their lives … On the other hand, the percentage of citizens willing to speak out verbally and engage in face-to-face, public decision-making has steadily increased. So too has the ratio of women’s to men’s acts of speech. The town meeting is the only legislative body in America where women’s presence is only a hair’s breadth from equality. Women’s verbal participation has also increased more than men’s over the past 30 years — in some cases dramatically so. I’m especially proud of my chapters on women’s participation because they constitute the first extensive quantitative record of women’s participation in this kind of high-risk political participation.”
Men or women, young or old, plumber, shopkeeper, insurance agent, retiree, trucker, carpenter, newspaperman: each voter who attends town meeting has had a busy day. Each has hurried through supper. Some have placed their children in the care of a babysitter. Some have put aside a favorite book. Others have turned off the TV. They’ve left the dishes soaking in the sink, put on their foul weather clothes because a northeaster is hammering the Island, and have run to the car. Some, and here I mean the women in the family, have insisted that their husbands clean up, wolf some wholesome dinner, and get off their duffs to go to town meeting.
On their way, Island voters who step up to their neighborly responsibilities transform themselves during the short drive from home to the meeting hall. They ennoble themselves. From just plain folks, they become citizen legislators, to use Mr. Bryan’s term. Town meeting is an elevating, albeit harrowing, experience. For the aspiring Athenians of Martha’s Vineyard, it is not to be missed.