Monday, May 05, 2008

Town Meeting

It's Town Meeting season across Cape Cod. Best form of local government ever! The whole town (potentially) gets together and votes on our budget, capital expenditures, zoning issues, etc.

Whaddya mean, "zzzzzzzzzzzzzz"? It's cool! Really!

I've been to just about every Town Meeting since we became homeowners in this lovely community, almost 10 years ago. They are held in the high school auditorium. The Selectmen (elected to run the town), Town Manager (a town employee who oversees all the municipal departments' operations and budgets), and Town Counsel (lawyers come in handy) sit on one side of the stage. The Finance Committee (appointed to work through the budget and oversee the town's long-range financial condition -- I won't say "health," as these are trying times -- ) sits on the other side with the Town Clerk (appointed to do various things you'd expect one with that title to do). The Town Moderator (person elected to conduct town meetings and appoint the Finance Committee members) runs the show from a podium between the tables.

We townsfolk sit in the auditorium. People seem to have their favorite section and return to it every time. There's a special place for the press and other non-voting parties. A podium is set up on the auditorium floor, from which anyone can speak on the issue at hand.

The meeting begins with a little prayer led by one of the clergy in town -- this year it was the local Coast Guard chaplain -- which always causes pockets of the audience to grumble about the separation of church and state. It doesn't bother me; the invocation is always short and generic, sort of a humble plea for wisdom. Were I an atheist, I think it would amuse rather than offend me. (It sort of amuses me anyway: Dear God, please let us approve a budget without causing bloodshed or heart attacks, Amen.)

We also say the Pledge of Allegiance, which doesn't outrage me either. However, I might note if any of our Selectmen are wearing flag pins, especially if running for reelection. Should I hold it against them as pandering? Should I esteem them as True Patriots and wonder why the rest of them don't love America? Decisions, decisions.

Then it's on to business, and we address the issues at hand. There are a few familiar characters who can be counted on to come to the podium every year. Town Meeting is the only time I ever lay eyes on some of these folks. This year one of my perennial favorites, a guy about my age, needed reading glasses to see his notes. He fumbled with them a bit. "Don't start my time yet," he said, referring to his allotted five minutes to speak, "this is my first time with these."

Some of the regulars rise to speak on every question, whether or not they have anything to say. Others repeat the "my taxes are the highest on the Cape!" mantra, whatever the issue, and whether or not it's relevant or even true. There is some overlap. We also have the one-issue folks -- once the school budget's passed, they'll leave in droves, happily abandoning the zoning questions to the senior citizens and town government geeks. I suppose I'm in that latter category, and will eventually be in both. I always stay till the bitter end, partly because I care about the zoning as well as the school budget, and partly because it's only once or twice a year my opinion matters this much, so I might as well make the most of it.

Often, amendments to the questions we vote on are proposed from the floor. Ideally, these proposals are made by well-informed people who've read the questions before the meeting and alerted the Moderator in advance what they plan to suggest. However, the more entertaining ones are sudden inspirations scribbled on scrap paper mid-meeting; the Moderator has to determine whether these are even valid proposals. She has her work cut out for her, with amendments galore, keeping discussions on track, keeping us clear what the vote is specifically about, and whether it requires a simple or 2/3 majority to pass. (For some reason people can't seem to keep track -- are we voting to vote on the question, or are we now really voting on the question? Are we voting on the amendment, or the question as amended?) As an added bonus, this year's meeting featured the visibly twitchy presence in the audience of the former longtime Town Moderator, who was defeated in last year's election. By the end of the night, he was actually shouting at her from the back of the room. It gets crazy, I tell you.

Part of the difficulty of Town Meeting is that the questions we're called to vote on have been discussed, wrangled over and otherwise hammered out in months and months of committee and board meetings, and it can be hard to get the nuances across to the general public in a few minutes. But this difficulty is, I think, one of Town Meeting's great advantages as well. It forces our leaders to be able to distill and explain each question to every one of us who cares to ask what it means, even if they (and I) would prefer that by Town Meeting time, people be more aware what's what.

Lately most of our Board of Selectmen has been bickering with most of our Finance Committee. The Selectmen wanted to pass a 3.5% budget increase over last year. The Finance Committee thought 4% would be healthier. The difference amounts to $153,000 or so. They went back and forth over it for weeks, with varying degrees of temper in play. At Town Meeting, after hours of discussion, amendments, discussion, more amendments, voting down the capital improvements budget(!) and then voting to vote on it again, and passing it; after many consultations with Town Counsel, and prolonged confusion about what's the question, again? -- well, as it turns out, the 4% budget passed.

Much of the fuss was about whether the additional money should come from the stabilization fund vs. tax funds. One speaker put it well: "it doesn't matter which pocket you take it from. We are talking about the same pair of pants." Yet, the pocket sort of did matter, because it had implications on what kind of vote was required to approve it.

What what what? You're bored!? OK, how 'bout a Town Meeting Drinking Game. Sneak in a flask, sit with your friends. Drink whenever:
  • someone mumbles about church and state during the invocation
  • speaker declares "I've lived in this town for ___ years!" Two slugs if the number's over, say, 40.
  • someone yells "CALL THE QUESTION" from the back row.
  • Moderator says "please confine your remarks to the question at hand, which is _______." Two slugs if she gets it wrong.
  • Moderator says "hold your applause."
  • someone submits an unintelligible amendment. Two slugs if it causes Moderator to consult with Town Counsel. Three, if it is an amendment to an amendment. Four, if we vote on the wrong one and have to do it over.
  • Add your own rules! By these alone, I'd have been completely snookered about a half hour into the meeting.
So what's your local government like? Do you pay attention to it? I know not everyone will be riveted by a Town Pavement Quality Survey broadcast on local cable (for some reason I found this fascinating), but give it a shot. Democracy favors the participants -- might as well participate! It probably won't turn you into the kind of goober I have clearly become.

No guarantees, though.


  1. Wow, a true participatory democracy! We have nothing like that here in Michigan. We have two forms of town government - city council & manager or strong mayor. In the first, city council is in charge, but delegates all day to day decision making to a city manager who really runs things. The mayor is really just an at-large city councilperson and a figurehead. No real power. In the second, the mayor has much more power and runs the city day-to-day. The council is still the overall legislative body, but the mayor can do quite a lot without council input.

    No participatory democracy there. Just representative democracy. You crazy Yankees have all the fun!

  2. I like town meetings. We have neighborhood meetings where I live. Bing and I like to go and observe for many of the same reasons you do. The truly odd thing is that our neighborhood used to be an older established one and is slowly becoming a gay haven. So...we have an interesting mix of elderly people who raised their families on our blocks to young and upcoming gay activists.

    The sparks do fly...

  3. that sounds interesting, even before you got to the drinking game rules, which had me roflol. My town has meetings that I keep meaning to attend, but never manage to - too tired, too apathetic, too, eh. I don't pay property taxes or have kids in the system, but I do read the articles about the Democrats fighting with the Republicans. I would make more of an effort if it was once a year.

  4. I like the drinking game! We have a town council/mayor and no one goes to the meetings. It's not like we can really participate anyway. We get to vote on local issues once or twice a year. If I could drink during the meetings, I'd probably attend all of them.