Now that all four of the Outer Cape towns have held their annual town meetings, gathering outdoors on athletic fields and in a parking lot, maintaining safe distancing and observing face mask rules, and, in each case, moving through a collection of warrant articles with unusual efficiency, what have we learned beyond the particulars of the business at hand?
Was there something hopeful in our semi-improvised gatherings, conducted during the worst pandemic in more than 100 years, and in an atmosphere of mounting political chaos at the national level not seen since the assassinations and massive Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and ’70s?
Residents were eager to turn out, as quorums that had been lowered (in accordance with state legislation prompted by the public health emergency) were easily exceeded. We can’t know how many people who wanted to attend chose to stay away for fear of being in a crowd of 200 or more. But the careful planning and management of these gatherings, which ensured that exposure to the coronavirus would not take place, allayed fears about future outdoor meetings, should they be needed.
A spirit of cooperation and trust in local decision-making prevailed. An odd result, perhaps, was the fact that not a single article on any of the four town meeting warrants was voted down. Even in Truro, where opposition to a housing development (the Cloverleaf) might have derailed the town’s normal and proper transfers into its Affordable Housing Trust Fund, the majority of voters did the right thing. Eastham voters approved a forward-looking family support package designed to make it a little easier for younger people and working families to make a life here. Provincetown voters affirmed the town’s commitment to its own innovative effort to address the need for middle-class housing at Harbor Hill.
Trust in government’s ability to solve civic, social, health, and economic problems may be at an all-time low. Ronald Reagan’s famous line, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” now has a different meaning, in light of the corruption overtaking the CDC and other federal agencies.
These town meetings should give us hope that, in times of crisis, good people will step up and do their part to preserve and strengthen the community and our democratic traditions. No one person or committee, no town manager or select board, and no presidential candidate can make this happen. It depends on every person finding that impulse within that calls forth a sense of civic responsibility, of caring for others. In doing that together, we can be a beacon that helps to light the way out of the darkness ahead.