Another sure sign of spring is Town Meeting season.
Town Meeting is the epitome of citizen government. One person, one vote. One vote on issues that directly impact my day to day way of life. One vote on issues that are right in my backyard (sometimes literally).
When I moved here, citizen government was something I read about in my high school AP American History class. I grew up Levittown, Pennsylvania, where local government was managed at the township level. Honestly, I have no recollection of local government at all. I moved to Boston, a big city with a Mayor and City Councilors. I voted, but still felt very removed from the process.
Our town is governed a Board of Selectmen and legislated by a traditional town meeting. Warrant articles are proposed (most frequently by the selectmen, but I’ve seen a few drafted by regular citizens too). Some are voted on during the annual elections (for town officers). Most are discussed and voted on at Town Meeting, held on a Saturday in March. One of the warrant articles is always dedicated to raising and appropriating the sum of $X million dollars to run the town, a.k.a, The Budget. Other articles have been about buying police cars, maintaining roads, or constructing buildings just to name a few. The Budget is always second to last on the agenda and is frequently cause for the most discussion.
I can honestly say I enjoy town meeting. The back and forth discussion is sometimes comical, sometimes frustrating, sometimes long winded, but at the behest of the meeting moderator (an elected official), it is always polite. It is worth noting that polite discussion doesn’t preclude heated discussion. I’ve seen red faces and teary eyes as people discuss spending they find outrageous or cuts that go too far.
Is it exciting? Nah. I bring my knitting and a water bottle. The Boy Scouts sell, hot dogs, and pastries. The Girl Scouts sell cookies. The folding chairs or bleachers are less than comfy, but in my mind it is a small sacrifice for having a say in how my hard earned tax dollars are spent.
I do find it disconcerting, that I am frequently one of the youngest faces in the gym and let’s face it folks, at 41, I’m not a babe in the woods, but by Town Meeting standards, I’m a youngin’. People my age in this town typically have kids, frequently, both parents work and Saturdays are devoted to items on the to-do list or kids extra-cirricular activities. I get it. We’re all busy, but this matters.
As Josephine Citizen, I feel I have no direct impact on what happens in Washington, D.C. or even Concord. Sure, I can pick up the phone or fire off an email to my elected officials, but I am one of thousands or hundreds of thousands of voices. My input is collected, aggregated, analyzed and weighed against many other factors. But, I can (and do) have a say in what happens in my own backyard.
This year, I brought my 9 year old. I warned her it would be boring, but I want her to understand that life isn’t always exciting and sometimes you just have to slog through the important stuff. She too brought her water bottle and knitting and I also had her bring the Town Meeting Scavenger Hunt from the Concord Monitor to help pass the time.
Of course, this year, thanks to the hard work of the selectmen, we were in and out in an hour. The drama was minimal but it was a good introduction to the democratic process. I fully intend to keep bringing her and as soon as my 5 year old can sit relatively still, he’ll come too. I hope they’ll gain an understanding of what it really takes to be an active citizen.
How is your local government run? Do you feel like you have a voice?