New Hampshire, famous for its “Live Free or Die” motto and spirit of rugged individualism, is also the home of the Free State Project, which describes itself as “a mass migration of more than 20,000 people who have pledged to move to New Hampshire for liberty.”
One of these Free Staters is Ian Underwood, a selectman in the town of Croydon, population 800. At the annual town meeting in March, he proposed cutting the $1.7-million school budget by more than half, arguing that “sports, music instruction and other typical school activities were not necessary to participate intelligently in a free government, and that using taxes to pay for them ‘crosses the boundary between public benefit and private charity,’ ” the New York Times reported.
The Times story, by Dan Barry, is a cautionary tale with a bracingly hopeful ending.
Croydon has more than 560 registered voters, but only 34 showed up for town meeting. Underwood’s budget-slashing amendment passed, 20 to 14. Free Staters celebrated the vote as a victory for “radical personal responsibility.”
Faced with the loss of more than half the jobs at the local school and the prospect of parents having to come up with thousands of dollars to send children to schools in nearby towns, “many Croydon residents were livid,” Barry wrote. “But they were also chastened. They hadn’t attended the town meeting. They hadn’t fulfilled their democratic obligation. … The moment revealed a democracy mired in indifference.”
State law in New Hampshire allows citizens to petition for a special town meeting to overturn a previous town meeting vote, but at least half the town’s voters would have to attend. A group was organized by “conservatives, liberals and those who shun labels,” Barry wrote. The petition was submitted, and the special town meeting was scheduled for May 7.
The petitioners needed at least 283 voters to show up. The turnout on May 7 was 379 — and the vote to overturn the budget cut was 377 to 2.
The big lesson of the Croydon story is “showing up,” said Chris Prost, who runs a small brewery there. “And not just showing up, but also knowing what’s going on.”
Although Croydon School Board chair Jody Underwood, Ian’s wife, also a Free Stater, called it a victory for “mob rule,” I call it a victory for democracy.
We who live in Massachusetts are not immune from the Free State mentality. As the Independent reported on Aug. 4, one Wellfleet resident recently argued that the affordable housing planned for Lawrence Road shouldn’t have a community room or garden or a children’s play area because those things already exist in town.
That person is entitled to his opinion. But what matters is it was expressed in the presence of others who brought important facts — like the five-year waiting list for a community garden plot — to the table.
When only a small minority of voters show up for town meetings, informed governance is at risk. The next special town meeting is Sept. 10 in Wellfleet. Let’s resist indifference.