'tis the season
In honor of the imminent town meeting season, The Times publishes a primer this week, which will serve as an introduction to these ancient and strange rites for the uninitiated and a refresher for the worn, old hands. In addition to meeting warrants, we include some of the common terms meeting participants annually wrestle with, and a description of the important business that must be done. It's intended to be instructive, not dramatic. For drama, we'll have to wait for the meetings to begin.
I've mentioned before that E.B. White, who lived and wrote in Brooklin, Maine, after moving Downeast from Manhattan, had something to say about how his rural community did its business, writing in March of 1940.
"This was my first town meeting (I missed last year's) and I was surprised to discover that there was not much discussion on the floor. The warrant contained 38 articles, covering election of town officers and appropriation of town moneys as well as other matters of policy. Most of them aroused no debate. There were questions involving the schools, the roads, the library, public health, yet there was no general discussion of any of these subjects. New Englanders are jealous of their right to govern themselves as they like, but in my town we have learned that town meeting is no place to decide anything. We thrash out our problems well in advance, working in small queues and with a long history of spite as a background. The meeting is just to make everything legal."
Here, town meeting attendance is appallingly low. The view seems to be, why not let someone else consecrate these decisions that we made long before the meeting began. We'll stay home and watch TV, which was not an option when White was writing.
White has a sharp sense of town meeting rhythm. "For the assemblage," he wrote, "the meeting virtually was concentrated in the first 30 minutes of bloodletting. It began when one of the citizens, who we all knew was loaded for bear, rose to his feet, walked to the front, drew from his pocket a small but ominous sheet of paper, and in soft pacific tones, began, 'Mr. Moderator ...'
"This was when democracy sat up and looked around. This was the spectacle the townfolk had walked miles for. Half way through the speech, when the air was heavy with distilled venom, my neighbor turned to me and whispered: 'I get so excited here it makes me sick. I'll commence to shake by and by.'"
We meeting veterans have all had that experience.
But often an amiable impatience will replace the tension that frequently crackles in the air above town meeting audiences. Some of the best examples of this phenomenon took place in Edgartown years 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 could be expected to change the mood by raising a ruckus in the back. He had probably just rolled over from Lou's Worry (no longer a feature of the Edgartown landscape) when happy hour ended.
"Start the movie," he would holler. "When does the movie start?" And, everyone would howl with laughter, happy for the moment to forget the important business at hand.
There are other town meeting rhythms. For years, off-season special town meetings in Chilmark have been brisk affairs, mainly because the Chilmark Community Center was a dim, cold place. Folks wanted to get it over with. The moderator would read the warrant, then ask whether there was any discussion.
Someone at the back of the room near a window would yell, "Naah, the hell with it. Call the question." And we'd go home.
Experts 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. The Chilmark model might be a bright light in the annals of political decision making.