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The New England-style town meeting – which originated in the 1600s – has been called the purest form of democracy. Having experienced more than a few town meetings over the years, I cant imagine what democracy in an impure form looks like.
Besides “the purest form of democracy” town meetings have also been called a lot of other things over the centuries, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to list them all here.
A lot has also been said over the centuries about “democracy.”
Winston Churchill said: Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Always good for a quote, Ben Franklin said: Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.
I’ve been thinking about the town meeting and democracy lately after reading an article in the Portland paper about several towns in Maine that were thinking of doing away with their annual town meeting – “democracy in action.”
There was a time, here in Maine, when such talk would be labeled “crazy” or “subversive” even “communist.”
Well, maybe not communist, but “European” at the least. It was unthinkable that something as divisive and rumor-producing as the annual March meeting at the town hall would ever be done away with.
Back home I remember that months before town meeting rumors would start flying on one town issue or another. There was always talk of the town buying some piece of property and who in town would gain or lose from such a transaction. No town meeting discussion would be complete without talk of roads and the town’s popular road commissioner. As the date of our town meeting approached there were always lots of questions about our friendly road commissioner.
What does he do down there in the town garage all day? Or, How many of his relatives are now employed by the town, these days? Or, What did they do with all that money we voted them last year, anyway?
These were some of the questions that were asked by the early-morning crowd at the Mainely Food diner. The lunch crowd would continue the questions, often adding a few more like: What are they teaching the kids up to the school these days that it costs so much?
People in our town loved their town meetings and all the ill-will that went with it. Where else but at town meeting could one group in town could finally put it to an opposing group and vote them down as many times as they possible. There were groups in our town that would vote against their own interests and shoot something down just because the other group wanted it too. It was all so much fun. And some towns want to put an end to it?
As a young reporter for a northern Maine newspaper I attended dozens of town meetings in March where the outside temperature was in the 20s and inside the packed hall the temperature often hovered in the 80s. You knew you were in for a lively meeting when the voters in attendance appeared to be as steamed as the windows.
A good town meeting would begin with people arriving early and filling up the available seats long before the meeting was scheduled to begin. Late arrivals would stand along the aisles on each side and in the back.
Once the moderator was chosen the articles would be introduced and the arguing would soon follow.
And now some Maine towns want to end the town meeting? They want to end all the conflict and dissension, all the discord and rivalry, all the friction and bare-knuckles fighting.
Why would any decent town want to do that?
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is
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