Governing our town

Last night we partook in one America’s oldest democratic processes, Manchester’s Annual Town Meeting. Our current process emerged out what was initially a matter of the church, with matters of town and church one and the same. The church elders, supposedly wise and god-fearing men, would create the agenda and then vote on it. Although greed and aberrations like the witch trials did happen, by and large these meetings were aimed at securing the ‘common wealth.’ With families intermarrying (as one can see from the gravestones) interests were intertwined and what was good for these men was supposed to be good for all. It was a paternalistic and patronizing system that survived for a very long time (and sometimes I think it is still there).

Somewhere between then and now towns and churches separated and the business of running the town became a secular affair. Still, our annual town meeting still starts with an invocation, a request to God to bless our decision making process. After 1876 the first edition of Robert’s Rules of Order appeared which are now standard practice. But they are not Roberta’s Rules of order and they have a certain cerebral masculinity about them. The process is stilted and allows for serial monologues and very little evidence of people listening to each other – rather people waiting in line to say their mostly well prepared speeches. It’s is funny that I can only remember the more spontaneous comments by the women in the assembly – but all comments, whether applauded or not, tend to fall like lead balloons in a sandbox – and there they stay. There is no dialogue as messy exchanges are taboo in a process that is based on Order.

And so I marvel and wonder about this particular New England democratic process where people vote on what is brought to the table by a fraction of the audience. They are the ones who have done the homework and are well versed in the issues. We are asked to validate what they put before us and our ‘aye’ is a vote of trust. But sometimes trust gets dented a bit and then things are not so smooth anymore and implementing the idea of self government is no longer easy.

Now we have oldtimers who want to preserve the town of old and the wealthy newcomers who have bought the multi million mansions built by the rubber and train barons of the 1900s, or tore them down and built McMansions. Interests are widely divergent, proposals are full of emotion, opinions are presented as facts, and figures are interpreted in ways that suit the cause pursued. You can do anything with numbers I learned a long time ago. We couldn’t possible get through the agenda in one night.

I suspect that most minds already made up beforehand. The real work of course, as in democratic government anywhere, is done long before the actual voting takes place. So in some way this town meeting provides the illusion of participation but it is a very superficial kind of participation, mine included – I got a lot of knitting done.

Axel is more involved and attended meetings beforehand; he writes letters in the local paper and huddles with others about how to deal with the tension between short term wishes and long term debt. The numbers are staggering, I think, for a small town.

The most controversial items were related to the donation of forty+ acres of land; a big chunk of ledge land that has, as per stipulation in the gift, to be converted into playing fields that will cost us 5 million dollars to be paid off over the next 15 years with money that will come partially from our own wallet. For this purpose we increased the Conservation Preservation Act (CPA) tax to 3% something that Axel tried to get passed more than a decade ago. At that time the voters grudgingly accepted one half percent; now, with the gift and field dangling in front of us, the 3% proposal was given a resounding ‘aye’ without any discussion. It seemed that the whole town came out to vote on this; it kept us busy till nearly 11 PM. We will miss tonight’s continuation of the town meeting but attendance will probably drop off a lot as the controversial issues have been decided or moved to the ballot later in May.

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