It’s town meeting season, time for that strange civic ritual we like to think of as an exercise in pure democracy. This spring’s turnout looks good so far: 448 voters flooded into Provincetown Town Hall on Monday, eager to take up the 48 articles on the town warrant with scintillating titles like “Wastewater Infrastructure Replacement and Modernization Project — Borrowing Authorization” and “Cape Cod Greenhead Fly Control District Assessment.”
People who come here from other parts of the country seem either to be thrilled by the idea of town meeting, with its fundamental principle that every voter has the right to take the floor, ask questions, and express her or his opinion — or to be appalled by it. One friend of ours from the Midwest who has a place in Truro is in the latter group. He is convinced that town meeting is “rigged” — that it consists of only a veneer of democratic self-government hiding its corrupt underside. Nothing important is actually decided at town meeting, he says. All of the big questions have been carefully worked out in advance by the insiders, tied up in neat packages, and presented to the voters for their rubber-stamp town meeting approval.
He’s not entirely wrong.
E.B. White explained the truth of the matter quite well in an essay written in March 1940 at his saltwater farm in North Brooklin, Maine: “We had our annual town meeting last week, in the old town hall next to the church and across from the cemetery…. The warrant contained thirty-eight articles, covering election of town officers and appropriation of town moneys as well as other matters of policy. Most of them aroused no debate. There were questions involving the schools, the roads, the library, public health, yet there was no general discussion of any of these subjects. New Englanders are jealous of their right to govern themselves as they like, but in my town we have learned that town meeting is no place to decide anything. We thrash out our problems well in advance, working in small queues and with a long history of spite as a background. The meeting is just to make everything legal.”
White’s insight also helps to expose the fatal flaw in the argument sometimes made by nonresident taxpayers that they ought to be able to vote at town meeting and town elections, since they pay taxes on their second homes here. The real work of small-town government and decision-making goes on all year long, in offices and committee meetings and conversations both public and held in confidence. (And in the local newspaper, I might add.) The right to take part in making decisions starts with being here and springs from showing up and taking part, not from paying your tax bill, no matter how large.
When town meeting ends up feeling good, as it often does, it’s only partly because of the arguments and counterarguments of the orators. It’s also because of the sense that people have worked hard all year to allow it to happen.