Our habit of centuries and of generations is to venerate the town meeting as the pure, raw essence of democratic self-government. But, we’ve been duped. It’s just eyewash. After all, town government, measured by town meeting attendance, spends much but involves few.
And sometimes, the few become too few, and a town meeting fails to convene as scheduled. This phenomena, though stunning, is common enough, especially in Aquinnah, where the sparse population requires a mightier than ordinary effort to achieve the numbers that equal a quorum.
Surprisingly, it’s also common in Edgartown, whose democracy is much more populous but rarely so bitterly contentious. Recalling a true story I’ve told before, an amiable and amusing impatience will sometimes replace the tension that frequently crackles in the air above town meeting audiences. In the mid-1970s, for instance, Edgartown’s town affairs were decided in what was an auditorium on the second floor of the Main Street town hall. Buzz Hall, the elder polymath of the family real estate empire, used the auditorium as a movie theater year-round, except when it was needed for town meeting or voting. Folks gathered to decide the budget or argue about the personnel rules, and it was never surprising when some guy changed the mood by raising a ruckus in the back.
Once, this reporter recalls from delighted firsthand experience of the event, the disruptor had rolled over from Lou’s Worry Lounge (no longer a feature of the Edgartown landscape) after happy hour.
“Start the movie,” he hollered. “When does the movie start?”
And everyone howled, happy for the moment to forget the business at hand. Town affairs are never as amusing as the sloshed and confused in attendance or as intriguing as movies.
Looking for a heartening explanation for poor attendance to annual town business, it may be that Martha’s Vineyard voters practice what many thoughtful political observers have long recommended. There is a profound school of thought, nurtured in smart, academic settings, which holds that less government is better government, that legislatures that gather only briefly do less damage than those that are in session most of the time, allowing members only brief holidays to pick voters’ pockets in face-to-face meetings back in the district.
There are state legislatures whose annual sessions are by law limited to just a few months. There are also towns not too much bigger than the towns here, where the town meeting convenes representatives elected by voters to do the work for them. This means that voters can stay home nuzzling a stiff bit of the creature while an abstemious neighbor heads to town hall to give his constituents the business. Taking all this aversion to governance a bit further, but extending to a deeply practical level, our voting neighbors may be thinking that if we could only avoid quorums year after year, then wouldn’t life be grand.
The Times’s annual town meeting primer is intended to 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.
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, he might as well have been writing about us.
“This was my first town meeting (I missed last year’s),” he confessed, “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, we say: 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 townsfolk had walked miles for. Halfway 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.’”
With a reality show of this quality just down the street, how can so many of us skip the show to snuggle instead with the dancing B-list stars or the aspiring idols?
This month, for us, it’s time to sit up and take notice. How can we resist?