This weekend I participated in the most exhausting and ridiculous democratic process known to mankind--the Town Meeting. I’m no big fan of the quaint New England institution, and I’m not particularly community-minded--but I feel like I should be community-minded, so I torture myself yearly--in fact the only two meetings I have missed since we lived here were last year, when we did not have a full-blown meeting (because it had been done away with in an extremely confusing ballot vote the previous fall) and I forgot about it altogether, and the year the twins were babies.
Town meeting involves three separate trips to the school or town office. First, we had to go and cast our votes for selectmen, planning board, school board and road commissioner before noon on Saturday. I called my neighbor, who is community-minded, on the school board and reads the paper, to find out whom we should vote for. C went first, since he was on his way to the recycling center, then I went, pulled the red-white-and-blue curtain behind me, x-ed my boxes with a sharp yellow pencil and placed my ballot in a wooden box (I used to think this method of voting was charmingly old-fashioned and kind of backward, until the recent electronic voting scandals. Now it seems downright cutting edge).
At two-o-clock, we headed back to the school, en famille, for the town meeting proper. This is where every line item in the town budget is debated and approved aye or nay. C, with M and E were ahead of me in line and headed straight for the top of the bleachers. Not much relishing the idea of sitting on bleachers with three kids, Z and I went for the folding chairs and sat next to our neighbors. The first items on the list were the salaries of the town clerks, where a meager raise and their health insurance benefits were hotly debated. I know that this takes place with my salary as well, before the legislature, but I have a union (as self-serving and ineffectual as it may be) to represent my interests, and my salary stands alongside 10,000 or 15,000 others’--not alone, under my own name. We moved on through the various town operating expenses, the volunteer fire departments and so-on--every item somehow incited discussion, but all were approved, except for some money that was to be set aside for a future plan for the townhouse property, with no clear explanation of exactly why it needed to be set aside now. The big issue was funding the repair of a dam, to the tune of at least $200,000. The dam issue had been voted on in November, at a special town meeting, at which repair costs were estimated at $60,000, and also at which lots of supporters showed up, but very few who supported removal (including myself--forgot to go, at 6:30 on a school night in November). The dam was zero-funded, sending the committee back to the drawing board.
All of this took until 5:00. Z had sat on my lap contentedly munching an apple for a good 30 to 45 minutes. When he started getting restless, I sent him to find his papa at the top of the bleachers. Then E came down to see me. He too was eating an apple, but he has a hard time with the skins, and spat a whole mouthful of them out into my hand. Then he did gymnastics on my lap for a while, before returning to C. Then Z came back. Then E. Then Z. Up and down and up and down. The only other kids there were two middle-school-aged girls (also twins). I saw one of M’s teachers, who has young kids, but here husband was not with her. Pretty much the audience consisted of people 50 years and older--with very few young families, those who should be most interested in the future of the town, and the next big issue on the list--school funding.
By the time the dam vote was settled, and the school board was trading places with the select people, Z and E were running around and shrieking. I had managed to change both diapers in a shower stall in the girls’ bathroom, and had appeased them by quietly reading books and coloring what they dictated (moon! More moon! Broke moon!), but they were fried and so was I. C packed them off home, I secured a ride with the neighbors and sat through another hour-and-half. The school discussion was much less contentious than usual--everyone was worn out from the dam discussion--but it was also fraught with much uncertainty. The state school budget has yet to come out, and they have so far threatened big cuts, which could render the town’s school budget moot--and could increase local property taxes drastically. Another damper on the discussion, I think, is that the whole thing goes back for yet another vote--up or down--thanks to new state rules. So tomorrow I’ll pick M up from school, head to the townhouse, vote for the third time in less than a week, and keep my fingers crossed that my kid’s school doesn’t get screwed in a secret ballot vote without the benefit of the discussions held Saturday.
So what do you think? Democracy at its most basic? Quaint New England tradition that is about as appealing as boiled dinner or witch trials? Disenfranchising waste of an already dreary Saturday?
I forgot to mention, the moderator makes it almost all worth it--I think he must be a professional auctioneer, and he’s really entertaining to listen to, especially when we voted to lump together the final 20 or so warrant articles and he had to read them all together, verbatim, at auction speed. He even mentioned the twins once, during a down moment, saying they were “doing great.” (That was before the running and shrieking commenced).