New England-style Town Meetings have been called the purest form of democracy. But then, Ben Franklin said, “a pure Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”
So, here we are once again in the month of March, often called the most useless and uneventful month that ever the mind of man or woman devised. Is it any wonder that the month was chosen, as far back as colonial times, as the best time of the year to have Town Meetings?
“Let’s meet in March,” said the father of Town Meeting, “Nothing else going on at that time; might as well get it over with.”
And so the tradition of the March Town Meeting was born.
You can see the old-timey roots of the town meeting in the official proclamation that orders selectmen to gather qualified residents to deal with the town’s business. It opens like an unwelcome letter from a law firm of Dewey Cheatem and Howe:
“Greetings: In the name of the State of Maine, you are hereby required to notify and warn the inhabitants of the Town of Beaver Cove, in said County and State, qualified by law to vote in Town affairs, to meet at the Grange Hall, in said Town on…” It goes on for quire a while in a similar vein.
At least the citizens can’t say they were never warned.
The specific time of the town meeting also sounds stuffy and very official. It never reads simply Saturday morning at 10, but “Saturday, the 21st day of March, A.D., 2017, at ten o'clock in the forenoon, then and there to act upon Article l.”
Over the years I’ve been to my share of town meetings, both as a duly warned taxpaying resident and as a newspaper reporter. And I’ve noticed the one article that always gets the most attention is the one that says something like:
“To see if the Town will vote to authorize the Selectmen, on behalf of the Town, to sell and dispose of real estate acquired by the Town for nonpayment of taxes thereon, on such terms as they deem advisable and to execute quit-claim deeds for such property."
Articles like that have caused pretty hard feelings in many small towns especially when someone loses their house and someone else in town snaps it up at a bargain price
The articles that want to see if the town will vote to raise and appropriate the sum of, oh, half a million dollars or so, for Public Roads usually goes gliding through without a peep. Sometimes a disgruntled taxpayer may complain about the condition of one street or another, but most people know that we’ve got to have roads and roads cost money.
Over the years selectmen have gotten pretty clever with numbers and are able to do some fancy footwork with town accounts. You might have an article that says something like: “To see if the town will vote to raise and appropriate the sum of $20,000.00 for a fence at the recreation field; $8,000.00 of which to come from the Surplus account, plus $5,500.00 raised in 2012 for the Roller- blade area that never got built; plus $6,000.00 from the surplus sesquicentennial hot dog and pizza account and the remaining $500.00 from last summer’s bean supper and bingo night account.”
Since people in Maine towns love to argue about such things that article will go on to say, “Location of the fence to be established by mutual agreement of the Recreation Committee the Board of Selectmen and the town manager.”
If committee members, board members and the manager end up, as likely, slugging it out over the location of said fence, you’ll probably see an article at the next year’s town meeting: “To see if the town will authorize Selectman, in an attempt to avoid unnecessary legal and medical costs, to make decisions on Town matters, such as fencing, without mutual agreement of Recreation Committee and the town manager.”
If you’ve never been to an authentic Town Meeting in Maine you’ve got to go and see Pure Democracy in action.