Needed: more Town Meetings
A study published this week by Freedom House held what should be troubling news for most residents of these United States. Democracy has suffered some setbacks in some little-expected places.
Since 2006, only 62 of the world’s nations have seen an increase in their citizens’ democracy. The United States was not one of them. In fact, the past dozen years have, according to the report, seen the opposite effect on the planet’s so far longest-lived democracy.
Although it does not forecast our nation’s imminent demise, it does point out some disturbing trends, primarily based in growing income disparity, increased partisanship in the political process, bias in the criminal justice system and, in the past year, defiance of long-honored ethical standards in the new federal government. Mostly, it seems from my window at the edge of the wood, we take little notice except of the possible effect on our annual tax bills.
The report put me in mind of a painting by Normal Rockwell, a chronicler of life among what we generally call “the middle class.” The painting shows a man standing to voice an opinion during Town Meeting in Rockwell’s home state of Vermont. Some people call Town Meeting “the last vestige of true democracy.”
Town Meeting (always capitalized) is a uniquely New England event. It’s a combination social gathering and decision-making all-day process marking the beginning of the agrarian new year. The selectmen – similar to supervisors in Pennsylvania townships – prepare a warrant based on what they see needing to be accomplished in the ensuing year, including, for instance, $5,000 for the fire department’s capital fund, $360,000 to pave a section of the Barker Road, $114 for a new door on the town clerk’s office, $200 contribution to the statewide public television channel, etc.
At noon, there is a break in the political action while everyone heads to the dining room to share a repast provided by various community members, and to visit with folks quite possibly unseen since winter set in back in November.
Half the town is in the volunteer fire department, and the other half is in the auxiliary, so the $5k capital fund donation is a given.
Some people travel the Barker Road as a shortcut home from work. They would like the road paved because it’s getting full of potholes and uncomfortable to drive. Many of those to whom the road is home see the potholes as speed bumps, and would as soon leave them alone.
Then the door. Isn’t there a house being torn down in town, and couldn’t a door be obtained, maybe for free? In the end, they’ll take the old door and a new lockset from Hammond Lumber, where someone knows someone who’ll give the town a discount.
Other matters – should there be a donation to the American Red Cross or the public television station, and how much money should be appropriated toward closing the landfill – draw limited discussion.
And all along, several folks are tallying the effect of each article on next year’s taxes.
There is much that can’t be controlled – 75 cents or more of each tax dollar goes to the school district, which is not governed by Town Meeting.
The budget approved, bellies filled, and gossip shared, participants head back to the farm in preparation for crop planting and other farmy endeavors. One might get the idea their real purpose for the event was to break the spell of cabin fever.
No fake news here.
We need more Town Meetings, where people gather to share opinions and take an active part in their governance.