Monday, March 12, 2007

Town meetings totally rock

I'm in New England now, where we have town meetings. Tonight, I covered the meeting in Chesterville, a small, not overly wealthy town just south of Farmington. I assigned our reporter to Farmington which I'm sure was much more uptown. I'd rather be in Chesterville.

Last weekend, I covered a meeting in another town that was about half "locals" and half artists and skiers. But Chesterville is totally local, and it's a wonderful example of how wrong those smart-ass city people are when they peg country folks with Deliverance stereotypes. These people aren't all college graduates -- the three in the foreground are a garage owner, a volunteer firefighter and a deputy sheriff -- but when they stand up to ask a question or make a point, you know you are listening to an intelligent person who has looked into an issue and either formed an opinion or come up with a probing question.

And the direct democracy is just a gas. Most of the time, the moderator (and there is a moderator appointed, who is from outside the town and thus neutral) -- well, most of the time, the moderator knows the name of the person rising to ask a question or make a point. It's very informal ... "Yeah, go ahead, Tim ... " and there is humor, usually aimed at the board of selectmen. It's a conversation among people who know each other and live together.

When you arrive at the town hall, you pick up a booklet that has the various articles to be voted on, as well as reports from each department within the town for the year. So you have all the tax assessments, and the budget for the animal control officer, and every other detail in the town government. Some towns get fancy and add color and a little self-promotion, others are bare bones. Chesterville was bare bones, but it was still a thick little booklet of information.

What impresses me about these meetings is the good spirit of it all. You don't have a lot of the penny-pinchers who sink so many school budgets in other areas. Most of the questions are genuine attempts to get information, and the town officials are very open to providing that information.

Two things came up tonight that impressed me. Now, let me start by saying that there were 53 articles, each of which needed an up-or-down vote. At most town meetings, the vast majority of articles are approved, since they've been chewed over by the budget committee and town board. But there are always a few that get more scrutiny than others.

My notes are out in the car, but one item was about $9,000 -- but I forget what it was for. Someone asked why it was $3,000 more than the previous year. Well, there was some back and forth on that, but then one of the selectmen (as town board officials are called) said, "We've got some reserve, so I'd like to offer an amendment ... " and he chopped off the three grand. As simple as that.

A much more complex issue came up at the end of the evening. Most of these "articles" are pretty cut-and-dried. For instance, the state licenses snowmobiles, and each town gets some of the fee back to maintain trails. The money is traditionally turned over to the local snowmobile club which is the group that actually does the work. For Chesterville in the past year, it came out to a little over $900. It would be silly not to approve the article because who else wants to go out there and maintain the trails? So that article usually passes with little discussion, although one town locally has two clubs and one of them apparently wasn't pulling its weight -- and that became a discussion point! Hey, your neighbors know when you're slacking off.

Anyway, there was a proposal to increase the minimum lot size for building to 40,000 square feet, the reasoning being that the necessary distance between wells and septic tanks made that a more logical lot size. But people at the meeting objected, pointing out that, as written, the article would forbid you to buy a quarter acre from a neighbor to put up a garage or even a storage shed, which has no impact on either wells or septic tanks. The building codes officer accepted the criticism, and one of the selectmen finally asked people to defeat the article so they could take it back and rethink it.

People of goodwill work together.

But the best moment came on an article that would give $700 to the local group that works with "special needs" people. Someone asked why it was so much, and proposed an amendment to cut it back to $150. Well, excuse me, but if you think only city liberals have compassion, you should have heard this group rise up against that notion.

What would the town do with that money that would be more valuable than helping these people, someone asked. And someone else said, "It's a small price for personal dignity." Of all the proposals that night, this one got the loudest "nay" vote for the amendment, and the loudest "aye" vote to approve the appropriation.

It comes down to this: People can be heartless when they are talking about abstractions. But you get into a town hall with your friends and neighbors, and you start talking about real life, and the generosity of people bubbles to the surface.

I wish more communities in this country had town meetings.


ronnie said...

A very nice article that reminds me a lot of the little town in Newfoundland I come from.

I think you're right about people being able to be dispassionate about abstractions but not people. They weren't really voting $700 for "special needs people" - the were voting the $700 for Edna and Phil, who visit Terry and Betty Sue and Roy, Junior weekly and take them on outings once a month.

Anonymous said...

Two things:

1) My Vermont town has it's meeting on a Tuesday during the day which has always kept me from participating but I do get to read up on the budget and other things being voted on and I think it's fascinating to have such a range of expenses and issues. I love the openness and honesty of how the money is being spent.

2) This year a fellow past away and it will change how our town is run because he signed up for just about any job needed. They had the list of the thirty or forty positions from the previous year and he was a third of them. I recognize him from helping run elections and he would always be there when you voted (whether I went before or after work).