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Town Meeting: Anachronism or Vibrant Expression of Democracy
For many Americans, the phrase “Town Meeting” conjures up images of politicians seeking some sense of informality as they appeal to voters for their support.
Such scenes, however, are far removed from the original, quintessential New England concept, which dates back to the 17th century. It is a system of governance that has been hailed by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville and other distinguished observers as a seminal democratic institution in which every citizen is a legislator voting on public matters.
The annual spring town meeting still survives throughout the New England states (the notion never really took hold elsewhere), though attendance has dwindled over the decades.
“It can be sustained, and it should be sustained,” contended Frank M. Bryan, a political science professor at the University of Vermont and author of “Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works,” a three-decade study of 1,500 town meetings in Vermont. “Democracy begins at home, and we learn values at face-to-face gatherings.”
“I think national politics is nasty and cruel and really unfortunate,” Bryan added. “And that is reflected in the demise of citizenship. Voting is down and has been since the 1960s.”
Bryan and others are trying to reverse the tide, by working on reforms aimed at ensuring the vitality of town meeting and making it more relevant to 21st century citizens.
Town meeting originated with the Puritans, who broke away from the Church of England in the early 1600s to establish “a new paradise on earth” in the New World, explained Joseph F. Zimmerman, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy.
Zimmerman, who has studied town meeting since the 1960s and is author of “The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action,” said the “open town meeting” was modeled on church parish meetings and became a forum for local decision-making as communities were established throughout the Northeast. Expanding town populations led to the creation of the representative town meeting, in which only elected representatives can vote.
In Massachusetts, a number of towns embraced the town council model, which replaces town meeting with a town council.
Zimmerman described the final evolution of town meeting as the referendum town meeting, in which citizens vote using preprinted paper ballots.
In 1995, a New Hampshire initiative known as SB2 authorized towns to adopt referendum town meeting by a two-thirds majority vote.
The intent of the referendum format is to increase participation, but the downside, experts say, is that voting takes place days after the meeting to discuss issues, which voters may choose not to attend.
“The bigger the town becomes, the less people participate,” said Susan Clark, a community development specialist and co-author with Bryan of “All those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community.” Town meeting starts to become unwieldy when populations exceed 5,000, causing town officials to consider switching to the referendum form of town meeting.
“That shouldn’t be the next step,” argued Clark, “because it gets rid of the deliberative process. We recommend the representative town meeting instead.”
The success of a town meeting often hinges on the skills of the town moderator, whose job is to try to ensure citizens have their say and voting proceeds expeditiously.
Douglas E. Hall, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies believes moderators need to do more.
“My thought is attendance might improve if town moderators were given some responsibility to encourage participation, which might include sending ‘Don’t forget’ postcards or other communications with people,” said Hall, who is also town moderator in Chichester, N.H. They should be encouraged to “make more direct contact, which is not seen as a moderator’s role right now.”
Zimmerman agreed outreach is important, especially among new residents. “Today we have such population mobility,” he said. “People who move from cities to suburbs don’t understand the town meeting process… whereas in the old days, almost everyone grew up in the town and it was a historic day of celebration and community.”
Some towns already take a proactive approach, providing town meeting brochures to new voters and even phoning them.
“Part of our program is making sure new residents are in touch with their government,” said Edward N. Perry, town moderator in Concord, Mass., where new voters are urged to join town committees as well participate in town meeting.
Moderators also are making waves in other ways.
Several years ago, to reduce the unrest caused by the length of time it took to do a paper ballot, New Hampshire Commissioner of Agriculture Stephen H. Taylor devised a new voting system for Plainfield, N.H., where he is town moderator. When town meeting participants check in they receive pieces of paper with tear off ‘yes’ and ‘no’ ballots, and remain in their seats. They vote by placing their ballots in shoeboxes (with a slot in the top and secured with rubber bands) and passing them down the rows, “just like the plate in church.
“We count ’em on the spot, and I try to have entertainment during that time,” Taylor said, adding a number of towns have copied his voting system.
Taylor tries to enhance community spirit by stopping at a quarter to twelve so participants can spend “a nice social three quarters of an hour [together eating lunch].”
Zimmerman recalled how Swanzey, N.H., officials tried to improve town meeting attendance three years ago by asking local merchants to donate door prizes for a drawing. The tactic worked, but was short-lived, said Zimmerman. “Last year they voted to adopt a referendum town meeting.”
For some towns, it takes a study committee to facilitate town meeting changes. The recognition of the need for better communication in Concord, Mass., for example, stemmed from a mid-1990s town meeting study aimed at improving dwindling participation.
“They made a number of recommendations which we’ve been implementing,” said town moderator Perry. These include creation of a time saving consent calendar (containing articles likely to pass without debate), which can be voted on in a single motion, and reduction of town meeting hours.
The town of Wayland, Mass., recently undertook a similar study, resulting in 37 recommendations ranging from providing child care and transportation for seniors to making meetings shorter in a more comfortable space.
“We found that virtually everybody surveyed was frustrated by long hours,” said Judy Currier, chair of the Wayland Town Meeting Study Committee. “One of our recommendations is starting at 7 p.m. rather than 7:45 p.m. and no new articles after 10 p.m. instead of 10:30 p.m.” Unlike Vermont, where town meetings are done in a day, Massachusetts town meetings generally last up to three to six evenings.
Future Town Meeting
Ed Newman believes town meeting must embrace technology to “preserve and protect the institution.”
As chair of the Town Meeting 2020 Committee of the Massachusetts Moderators Association, he’s examining various ways to do this, and trying out a few. For Stow, Mass., where he is town moderator, Newman developed a town meeting presentation guide aimed at enabling people to deliver, and receive, information in a clear and concise format.
“We’re transitioning to PowerPoint presentations,” said Newman, who helps participants prepare material using a town provided template containing eight to 10 slides.
“Fifteen years ago, we had a three-by-five screen with an overhead projector,” said Newman. “Today there’s a full-drop down screen 20 feet wide, and cameras recording images on the screen and broadcasting in three different rooms.”
“We’ve just begun to use a local cable access channel, with delayed broadcasts [of town meetings],” added Newman, “and that has brought out lots of first time voters.”
More towns are using the Internet these days as a message board for town meeting postings. The Stow, Mass., website, for example, contains a town meeting handbook and feedback form, as well as details on forthcoming meetings.
The challenge for town moderators, Newman said, is “to find ways to use these enabling technologies… to bridge the gap between the way town meeting is now and the way it will be in the future.”
Community development specialist Clark notes the technology should fit the town. Low tech methods might suffice in places where a sign in the center of town or a trip to the local dump may be the best ways to disseminate information.
Changing State Law
In Vermont, Bryan and Clark are encouraging legislators to make the annual spring town meeting a paid state holiday called “Democracy Day.”
At a recent meeting, Clark reported, state Sen. Jeanette White passed out two draft pieces of legislation on ways citizens can get time off from work to attend town meeting.
“The general idea is to treat town meeting attendance the way we treat jury duty,” she said, then added employees should not be penalized with docked benefits or concern about being fired. So far, though, “The bill as drafted does not allow for paid time off: It’s leave without pay.”
Though they concede the form may need tweaking, advocates remain upbeat about town meeting.
“It’s not going to go the way of the covered bridge,” said Clark.
“The evidence shows more and more people are living where they’re working,” Bryan said. “There’s more working at home. There’s a rebirth of community and you need that first.”
Describing town meeting as “a complex mess,” Bryan envisions no surefire solution.
“You’re going to go to town meeting and see people make jackasses of themselves,” he said. “The thing about town meetings, it’s all there out in the open. There are going to be hard feelings and people almost coming to blows, but time passes; fences are mended; we go on.”
Harvard political science professor Jane Mansbridge, whose book, “Beyond Adversary Democracy,” chronicles the town meeting in a single Vermont town, agreed saying, “One of the most important things for people who participate in a democracy to learn is how to lose. And when they lose it’s really important for them to lose to their neighbors, who are perfectly sensible people, have kids, will lend you their car or help you dig your car out if there’s a snowstorm. It’s not ‘them,’ those guys up in Washington making those decisions.”
In their new book, “All those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community,” Frank M. Bryan and Susan Clark offer several suggestions for improving town meeting.
Here are a few:
Arrange for childcare during the meeting. Clark said the task can become “self-sustaining” if a civic group adopts it, and “has other ramifications” such as “making people feel invited.”
Enjoy a meal together
Welcome new voters by sending an invitation letter and acknowledging their presence – with applause – at the meeting.
Make town meeting a community celebration. In Greensboro, Vt., an annual citizen’s award is a closely guarded secret revealed at the meeting, which Clark said is one of the best attended in the state.
Reprinted with premission form the February 2006 issue of the Northeast Municipal Forum