Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Ayes Have It

Living in a small, rural Massachusetts town means we have a participatory (A.K.A. “open”) annual town meeting. Occasionally they are sparsely attended. But our first town meeting after we moved here 16 years ago was so crowded that the fire chief said we were near capacity. So a slew of us sat up on the stage in bleacher seats, facing the majority of the townspeople. (“Hello new town!”) Our most recent town meeting was not as beastly hot as normal, but significantly longer than usual. In advance of the meeting, there were two schools of thought about it: 1. the town (like the rest of the Commonwealth) has no money so the meeting will be incredibly brief or 2. the town has no money (like the rest of the Commonwealth) so the meeting will be lengthy and contentious. If you chose “2” you are correct!

I have a love/hate relationship with town meeting. Ours is not as quaint and folksy as some of the ones I’ve read about up in Vermont. Town Meeting Day up there is a state holiday in March, which in Vermont is still decidedly winter. In some towns there is a lot of knitting and covered dish lunches. Here in Central Massachusetts there’s no food and hardly any knitting because our town meeting is typically held in June and it’s just too darn hot. What I do love about town meeting is that any registered voter can show up, sit on uncomfortable folding chairs, listen, raise their hand, be called on by the moderator and ask a question or voice an opinion. If you have a good strong voice which you can project throughout the hall (like Chuck and I both have!), you can stand at your seat and be heard. If you have a wee voice you have to go to the microphone or the moderator has to repeat your question. Of course the down side of anyone being allowed to speak is that anyone is allowed to speak! But as the hours go by and the room grows warmer and my arm is starting to ache from overusing my fan, it becomes an exercise in patience and respect to listen quietly to someone who is, in my opinion, talking to hear themselves talk or is voicing a view which is the polar opposite of my own.

What I consider the most important and honorable part of open town meeting is that we vote by voice (by acclamation) or, when a two thirds majority is required we stand to be counted - literally. It’s hard. Especially if the discussion on the article has been heated, long and involves spending more money. You could be sitting next to a neighbor or friend or fellow congregant and one of you is standing on the yea, while the other is standing on the nay. (Sometimes that split decision happens between Chuck and me, which causes us to joke that the voting is “tearing families asunder”!) But this form of voting is the physical manifestation of “standing up to be counted” which impresses the heck out of me every time I do it. Sometimes there is a motion from the floor to have us vote by secret or paper ballots. But that motion requires a floor vote and rarely passes. And as the evening wears on and the temperature rises, it is extremely rare to get a paper ballot through, because it is ponderously slow and inefficient compared to the more public alternatives. For national, statewide and town elections we still have our polling places and our secret ballots. But for working out the details of an amendment to a noisy dog by-law or parsing the dollars and cents of the school budget I wouldn’t trade annual town meeting for all the tea in China.

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