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Town meeting is the municipal legislature in many towns in New England. Town meeting has been called "the purest form of democracy," pure although none of the ingredients are refined. Students of the contaminated version called Congress can restore their faith by studying democracy at full "strength."
Democracy is the form of government where "the majority rules." Americans have historically been giddy about democracy, as they enjoy a system where fifty-percent-plus-one of the voters can have their way on propositions such as:
- Joe should be mayor because he says he goes to all of Junior's football games.
- All the candy at the store should be half-price, and my health care should be free.
- We should be free to buy and sell Negroes.
- We should weigh Sarah down with rocks and throw her in the river, and if she floats, we should hang her because it proves she is a witch.
In the American colonies, state governments were set up with actual rules and powdered wigs. After American independence, the wigs were replaced with raccoon pelts, but there were still some rules left. However, small towns were left to fend for themselves, with no raw materials except highly opinionated farmers. Thus, they invented the town meeting, a remarkable form of government where anyone who shows up is a legislator. Readers who see the problems when a legislature is full of people who have done nothing more than win a popularity contest can imagine what can go wrong when the legislators don't even have that in their favor.
Town meeting is held in late winter. This cleverly excludes several disruptive elements:
- People with summer homes in the state
- Pensioners who spend winter in Dixie
- Soldiers on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
New Englanders boast that "whoever doesn't survive the winter doesn't deserve the summer." Left unsaid is that these "quitters" don't even deserve a say in how their taxes are spent. Few towns are daring enough to schedule town meeting during business hours. However, the structure of town meeting ensures that anyone who works for a living does not participate fully. Many other precautions ensure that the absolute legislative power of town meeting never actually threatens the job of any town employee.
In addition to town meeting, there are municipal elections involving secret ballots and sometimes even the showing of identification. Elsewhere in the United States, such precautions are cited as evidence that those in power hate all African Americans. However, in New England, this charge has not stuck, because no one can explain what is wrong with that.
Whether or not voters are identified, municipal elections are free of the school buses with out-of-state license plates seen in federal elections, because the federal labor union tends not to care who becomes Dog Catcher or Chairman of the Planning Board.
Voters vote on Selectmen or Councillors to be the Executive Branch of the town. In most governments, the Executive Branch carries out the will of the legislature. In town government, the Executive Branch stage-manages the legislature to get what it wants. The Executive Branch may hire a "town manager." Unlike everyone else, the manager:
- Does not live in town
- Wears a three-piece suit and a large pinkie ring, and
- Has a university degree in how to get your way when everyone disagrees with you and you can't convince them.
A key office in the municipal election is Moderator of town meeting. This is the president of the municipal legislature and, in theory, the most powerful office in town. In practice, it goes to the guy who retired twenty years ago as the minister of the town's only church. He wins the vote every year because everyone loves him and knows it would surely kill him to deny him that role. He used to be one smooth talker, but he has not been aware of what is being voted on for the last ten years.
For that reason, the Moderator appoints a Parliamentarian to assist him. The Parliamentarian is usually a doddering military veteran who believes in "lore and ordah" and talks about "Rules and Regulations" as though that were the Tetragrammaton. However, the Parliamentarian does not actually use a rulebook like Robert's Rules of Order, because if town meeting ever had to unravel a motion to lay on the table an amendment to an amendment, the Moderator would have another stroke.
Still, with the Parliamentarian's help, town meeting can spend time splitting hairs over "laying on the table" (which removes something from debate, where in Britain it puts the thing into debate) — more time than it spends on the debate.
The business of town meeting is in a document called the warrant. This is not a warrant for anyone's arrest, provided they sit quietly and don't make too many pesky motions. The warrant is a list of items to be voted on. Taxpayers are protected — and hopefully, lulled into skipping the meeting — by the knowledge that nothing can be voted in that is not on the warrant. They are not protected by having the warrant confined to legitimate town spending, or by being able to read the damned thing.
Call to order
The meeting begins, generally within an hour of the time it was supposed to, by a sharp rap of the gavel, as soon as the Moderator has finished gossiping with his clique. It is followed by several reassuring annual traditions:
- The Boy Scouts march in, carrying the flag, and lead the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. This is not as dry and somber as it seems, as voters can look around the room at all their neighbors who didn't even obey their marriage oaths. At least they are not "laying on the table."
- The Moderator gives his jaunty annual speech about the basis and procedure for town meeting, as he believes he was elected for being the best comedian in town.
The first order of business is to vote to dispense with certain state laws. For example, normally, no one except town residents can speak at town meeting. However, everyone from the superintendent of the regional school to the owner of the mosquito control business — that is, everyone who wants some of the loot — is from out-of-town. To follow this law would put a major monkey-wrench in the proceedings. Generally, town meeting also dispenses with the obligatory reading of the entire warrant, as the average voter can neither read nor enjoys being read to.
Warrant Article #1 is, by tradition: TO SEE IF THE TOWN WILL RAISE $50. (Using all capital letters makes it more legal.) This first dollop of money will go to a regional charity that provides a place for kids to gather after school so that they don't become delinquents. Fifty dollars will not make a difference, and the real gangsters won't go there anyway. But this article puts each voter in a warm and fuzzy mood about spending his neighbors' money on things that will make him think more highly of himself — the basis for everything that follows.
An important principle of town meeting is that it makes no actual decisions. The Fire Department is a good example. It has more ladder trucks than the town has fires in a typical year, but voters say that's just the cost of prevention. When a mishap occurs, they are sure we were pretty close to 100% prevention, except for things we didn't anticipate, and more spending will close the gap completely. The mother of all mishaps, the 9-11 attacks, might suggest that we can't anticipate everything. Instead, it is a new weapon to beat back restraint, usually with a housewife shrieking about the insult to Our First Responders of holding them to last year's spending.
The fire trucks are used both for pizza runs and to take rides to the business park to tell the owners that they need a fire exit where the Planning Board told them they needed a solid wall. Firefighters in town point to a rulebook, written by firefighters in the state capital, that explains why the ladder trucks must be shiny and have lettering in gold leaf.
Town meeting cannot vote that the town needs fewer vehicles, nor especially require that they buy used cars or stickshifts. Town meeting, instead, decides between key alternatives:
- Paying cash for a new fire truck, which will jack up the current year's taxes
- Leasing a fire truck — that is, buying not just a vehicle but a big loan, which will jack up the taxes for many years
- Putting the funds in a "capital reserve account," which will jack up the taxes for many years without even getting a fire truck.
Town meeting is a "deliberative body," and all the warrant articles receive careful deliberation. Only, the vote on the new walkie-talkie gets two hours of it, whereas the vote on the fire truck got two minutes.
Those in favor of the spending use platitudes such as inflation. If we don't buy stuff this year, everyone knows that it will cost more next year, and we will still have to buy it. (Perhaps we will get a raise next year and be better able to pay for it? That is mere speculation.)
Then old Ike gets up. He is not a Founding Father but merely channels them. The Constitution, separation of powers, and limited government. He knows his material in detail. So does everyone else, who heard the same speech last year.
The Moderator is excellent at keeping the debate from getting personal. He is merely ineffective at getting the debate to relate to the warrant article. However, he has a vital tool to aid deliberation — the three-minute time limit for each speaker.
When there are a lot of speakers, the magic phrase is, "I call the previous question." This is a vote on whether it is time for a vote, a concept recursive enough to require another call for the Parliamentarian. The magic phrase is heard on two occasions:
- At the end of a gassy little speech that the speaker wants to be the final word, and
- After the Fire Chief gives a thumbnail summary of every fire truck bought since 1920.
In politics, the best deliberation is deception; and for truth in advertising, the best deception is right in the warrant.
- The lease of the fire truck contains an "escape clause." This means next year's town meeting will be perfectly free to vote down its installment. (And give back the fire truck and discard the town's investment.)
- Each capital reserve fund has rock-solid restrictions on the use of the money — until next year's town meeting changes them.
- The Selectmen agree to even more restrictions on their spending, in order to win the vote — until they go to court and get them declared illegal.
Once town meeting discusses finances, it is time for the brainy one to pipe up. As the only townie able to operate a calculator, he can state exactly how many dollars a given vote will add to everyone's taxes. He often says a given vote will have "no tax impact." This may mean several things, none of which are that the vote will have no tax impact:
- It might not raise taxes because town meeting previously voted to lower taxes. It will merely remove the point of that vote and the two hours of cat-fighting.
- The entire town budget has "no tax impact," as it calls for no more spending than last year. All the additional spending is in separate articles in the warrant which, unlike the budget, cover services that voters actually want done. When your tax bill arrives and you faint, it is your fault.
- Buying a snowplow shed that we don't need will have "no tax impact" because we will sell the old shed, which we didn't need either, although the proceeds will not be returned to taxpayers, but to justify a brand-new spending project, so that Brains can claim that this project has "no tax impact" either.
When told that voting Yes "has no tax impact," someday voters will ask, "Compared to what?" It is never compared to voting No. Like the Hotel California, a capital fund can be repealed anytime you want, but its money can never leave. It will always go to something new, which will have "no tax impact."
The random voter also wants to practice deception. The method is simple: Town meeting at 7 p.m. is not the same as town meeting at half past midnight. There are constant comings and goings, caused in part by tasty baked goods sold by the Ladies' Auxiliary in the lobby; also by emergency half-hour trips to the bathroom soon after. At around half past midnight, someone will rise and state, "I move we reconsider Article #3." And just like that, the spending that was voted down, 60-20, is now approved, 20-4. The 20 people receiving the loot hang around, because loot is their business. The people paying the loot have left, as they have a real business to open the next day. A few of them mutter on their way out that the other side should feel guilty that they are leaving. (The other side never does.)
The non-random voter — that is, the shop steward of the Teachers' Union — employs other tricks. As town meeting is a public meeting, it must be all right to set up a TV camera and record everything, right? The average citizen knows that:
- He never babbles like a moron, not even momentarily,
- He will not say anything that could be misinterpreted five years from now, and
- He will not glance at the miniskirt of the shapely Widow Jones in a way that could be captured by a 20× lens.
Happily, the Union would never abuse the video unless, say, an opponent of spending actually runs for office. (For further instructions, see Mitt Romney.)
Despite all the preceding tricks, town meeting could conceivably enact actual spending restraint, a small-scale version of what Peter Jennings in 1994 called the national temper tantrum. To protect the public schools from such outbursts, so that they remain free to forge a nation able to fit condoms onto cucumbers and possibly name two U.S. Presidents, schools are governed by an entirely separate school town meeting. Childless couples, singles, and pensioners — that is, any voter who neither massages, receives, or benefits from the loot but merely coughs it up — is not welcome at these town meetings, and it is everyone's civic duty to let them know it.
Like the Fire Department, mere mortals can try to amend the school budget. The Superintendent will dryly vow to meet the lower total by "zeroing out purchases of paper and pencils." Mere mortals cannot amend individual line items to make gentler cuts. That would be telling professionals how to do their job. Thus, no one at school town meeting can propose class sizes larger than twelve (larger than two, for spoiled brats with Individualized Education Plans). But anyone is welcome to rant that he was in a class of 60 kids and he thinks he "turned out pretty well." Because even school town meeting is "deliberative."
The future of town meeting
Despite the obvious benefits of town meeting, dozens of New England towns are scrambling to experiment with dangerous and untested alternatives like elections. For example, under the SB-2 option in New Hampshire, each article in the town warrant becomes a referendum.
SB-2 is touted by mean-spirited voters who hope to keep their own salary because of greed, while town fathers pursue the more saintly pastime of coveting it. A town that adopts SB-2 sees not 80 but 16 people at town meeting, which is reduced to the business of deciding the wording on the ballot (reduced from grand theft to petty sabotage), though the balloting itself involves not 80 but 400 voters. Democrats say this change is profoundly undemocratic: It involves fewer voters, when it is not involving more of them.
Defenders of town meeting say it is vital as a meeting-place — as opposed to the Rec Center (now known as the "Community Center") and the public plots (renamed the "Community Gardens"). Only at town meeting do residents learn and express the civility and manners that a free country needs. These would be the schoolmarms who hissed at you every time you got up to talk.