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New England by Heart

The Strange Ways of Cities and Towns

New Englanders, being the fiercely independent creatures that we are (albeit at constant battle with our liberal tendencies), insist on keeping control of our communities at a local level. This is done as it always has been through the Town Meeting form of local government. While our cities and some larger towns operate with less direct governance – such as an elected council with a mayor or town manager – mostly we have Town Meeting with a healthy dose of suspicion toward state and federal government efforts to impose regulations on us. Counties, where they exist at all, primarily define geographies and for the most part have no power beyond their original purpose of judicial administration. It would, after all, be rather inefficient to have courthouses in every town.

Norman Rockwell – Freedom of Speech

Town Meeting is the purest form of democratic government – this is where townspeople are directly heard, vote on matters of town governance, and keep the town’s elected officials and regulations in check. Under Town Meeting government, registered voters elect a board of selectmen, which is responsible for the management of the town, sometimes with the help of a town manager appointed by the board for larger towns (where the position was voted in by Town Meeting). Town Meeting varies in particulars depending on the state and town, but all follow the premise that the townspeople actively participate in the discussions and vote on the matters before the town.

Town Meeting is both a governing structure and an event. The event is an annual (or more frequent) town meeting, along with any special Town Meetings convened for particular purposes. Town Meeting (the event) begins with a warrant – a notice and agenda (articles). Citizens can petition with a certain number of signatures up until the warrant is closed to have an article added. The threshold is low – often only ten to twenty-five – and easily achieved assuming that there is any interest at all in the article. Special town meetings are normally called by the selectmen to deal with topics that may need to be addressed before the next regular town meeting. Townspeople can also petition for a Special Town Meeting, again with a certain number of signatures, often as a percentage of the registered votes – say 10%. The board is then required to schedule the meeting.

Towns adopt either an Open or Representative Town Meeting format. In Open Town Meeting, registered voters directly vote on the articles, either in the town meeting itself, or via a subsequent ballot at the election polls. In Representative Town Meeting, representatives are elected within each of the town’s precincts or districts at annual elections and vote in town meetings on behalf of their precincts. However, that is the only difference from Open Town Meeting. Citizens still attend town meetings and can actively participate in the discussions.

Downtown Boston Map
Downtown Boston

I had long assumed this system was the norm for the country as a whole, like that towns begin where adjacent towns end (if there’s space between towns, where the heck do the people in those spaces actually live?) and that roads meander, crossing each other at odd angles, and intersections often join five or even six roads with rotaries – aka roundabouts. The first time I visited a city outside New England, I was blown away by the grid system – genius!! Who woulda thunk that was more the norm everywhere but New England?

In short, New England is a bit weird in ways I hadn’t already known about.

But, you know, these things all got defined pretty early on, when we were trying to figure out how to grow crops in rocky soil and put up enough to survive the winters. Town government was the least of our concerns, other than making sure some power-hungry clown wasn’t given authority to run wild with autocracy. And once you have true direct government, it’s hard to give that up. So here we are in the 21st century, still governed by Town Meeting.

We’re so fierce about this, that we even have some towns that re-incorporated into cities, but insist on being referred to as the “town of …”. Like there’s something a little bit shameful about moving to a council system. Conversely, there are a handful of towns, like the mouse that roared, that have applied to the state level for the title of City, even though they’re really governed by Town Meeting. Delusions of grandeur.

Canterbury NH Town Hall
Town Hall – Canterbury NH

There are many who feel that outside of small, rural towns, Town Meeting is no longer effective – it’s hard to get enough citizens to show up, and those that do are often tied to special interests lobbying for something that does not benefit the larger populace. Being perhaps the majority of those who show up, the relevant articles get passed. Thus, it is said, larger towns should grow up and adopt a Mayor-Council or Council-Manager form of government. I would argue that those forms are also beset by special interests, and lack the one thing town meeting has to counter it – the direct voice of citizens. Look at it this way – if a special interest article is passed in town meeting and the citizens get in an uproar over it, they simply need to petition for a special town meeting and an article to address the grievance, and overturn it.

Here in Plymouth, we have grown to over 60,000 people scattered among several villages (ah, villages and boroughs – that’s another story), and still operate via Representative Town Meeting. There is perennial talk about a move to a Mayor-Council, but we inevitably push that crazy idea aside, elect our precinct representatives and attend Town Meeting. Or watch from the comfort of home on local tv, or find out what happened from the local newspaper or that person in the neighborhood who always seems to know everything that’s going on. And we show up when it really matters. It works, despite the naysayers.

Hey, when you’ve barely survived an ocean crossing in a ship the size of a bathtub, followed by a freezing winter with no food, all in the name of freedom to worship the way you want, then fought the British empire for independence, you don’t relinquish that hard fought freedom easily.

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