'If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" That age-old question, from the writings of philosopher George Berkeley in 1710, comes to mind as we approach the busy annual town meeting and election season in Berkshire County's 30 towns.
To put it another way: What if they held a town meeting or election and (hardly) anyone came? While we're not quite at that extreme, it's the trend threatening the grass roots of New England's unique form of hometown democracy.
As noted in this space annually since 2007, voter turnout has been dropping to alarmingly low levels, with a few exceptions. Closely related is a dearth of candidates volunteering for town boards and committees. In Lenox, for example, there are no contested races and two open positions without any takers.
"The purest form of democratic governing is practiced in a town meeting," writes Secretary of State William F. Galvin in a handy, voter-friendly online guide. "In use for over 300 years and still today, it has proven to be a valuable means for many Massachusetts taxpayers to voice their opinions and directly effect change in their communities."
"Here in this ancient American assembly, you can make your voice heard as you and your neighbors decide the course of the government closest to you," Galvin continues.
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to local government. In some communities such as Adams and Lee, voters elect town meeting representatives for the spring gathering that resolves policy issues and approves spending. That's an unfortunate dilution of the one-person, one-vote rule that should govern these crucial once-a-year meetings.
In most communities, it's individual voters who make all the key decisions that affect town government -- property tax rates, budgets, school system, public safety and road maintenance, among others. Often, voters are asked to approve changes in zoning and other bylaws.
This will be my 33rd town meeting season and, along with the flowers that bloom in the spring and the greening of the still barren landscape, it's always eagerly anticipated. Each one I've attended as a resident or a reporter has been at least compelling and at most, fascinating.
At some meetings, vigorous debate breaks out on baked-potato issues such as an expensive school project. The moderator who's on the town election ballot -- an emcee of sorts who should be well-versed on formal procedures -- calls the shots, keeps the discussion civil and rules on the outcome of votes.
Other meetings zip through the articles on the warrant -- the list of articles to be decided either by voice vote, a show of hands or a secret paper ballot.
The (often-vast) majority of residents skip town meeting, claiming they're too busy or that their voice and vote don't matter. Convenient excuses abound, but they ring hollow.
When I hear complaints about how a town is being run or about the effectiveness of elected leaders, I always pose a question: Did you attend town meeting? Did you vote in the annual election?
Very often, the response is a shrug or a sheepish "no." I find that frustrating, even irresponsible. If residents can't be bothered to come out a couple of times a year to participate in decisions that affect their wallets, quality of life, and the education of their offspring or grandkids, I have very little patience with their gripes.
It's inconvenient, perhaps, to walk the walk to a meeting, and then wait your turn to talk the talk. The folks who do so deserve extra consideration from the complaint department. For the rest, as I say each year at this time, the complaint window is sealed shut.
The Citizen's Guide to Town Meetings can be found online at www.sec. state.ma.us/cis/cistwn/twnidx.htm.
Clarence Fanto, a regular Eagle contributor, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.