WELLFLEET — Take me out to the town meeting — if Wellfleet doesn’t win, it’s a shame. For it’s one, two, three motions to call the question and you’re out, at the old town meeting game.
The 266 residents who flocked to the baseball field across from the Wellfleet Elementary School for the annual town meeting this past Saturday were in for extra innings, as the meeting lasted six and a half hours. A big white tent provided shade from shortstop to first base, while covering up some of the shallow outfield. If those inside the fences were the players, the nonvoters (part-time residents, perhaps?) relegated to the bleachers were the fans.
Moderator Dan Silverman began the meeting with a quote from 19th-century political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville: “Town meetings are to democracy as primary schools are to science.” But de Tocqueville didn’t write about the quirkiness of town meetings where everyone knows everyone and people are, well, people.
A toddler played with dirt near third base, a woman wearing sunglasses and leopard-print boots lay back in a lawn chair with her feet up on a footrest, as if she were a couple of miles down the road at Newcomb Hollow, and people greeted one another like long-lost family on their way to and from six neatly placed blue porta-potties in front of the left-field fence.
A few exchanges highlighted the local in local government. A voter mistook Fire Chief Richard Pauley for Police Chief Michael Hurley, and Pauley cracked, “We’re twins — I’m just the better looking of the two of us.” Later, select board member Helen Miranda Wilson referred to Silverman as “Danny,” and he quickly responded, “It’s ‘Mr. Moderator’ for this meeting.”
Pink and green voting cards shot up and down, with the only objections often coming from the few who forgot to lower their cards when the moderator said “all those opposed” after raising them for the preceding “all those in favor” call.
Harbormaster Will Sullivan asked for approval of the purchase of a new boat with improved lifesaving technologies. After several comments, questions, and clarifications, one gentleman walked to the microphone and proposed a cheaper solution. “We should get duck boats!” he said. “They’ve worked for 75 to 80 years. Right into the water, right out of the water. Splash! That’s what you’re looking for.”
When the comments went on a little too long, as they did during the boat discussion, and the moderator asked, “Are you ready to vote?,” the crowd let out an exasperated “Yesss!”
Of course, the tendency for town meeting to be long and drawn out (although Silverman threatened to turn on the ballfield’s sprinklers at 2 p.m., the meeting didn’t end until 4:30) is a result of both the greatest strength and the Achilles’ heel of direct democracy.
“You can say whatever you want out here,” said Cathy Butler of South Wellfleet, before joking that she was going to propose the town buy reclining chairs for old people to use at future town meetings.