Carole Owens: The gift that keeps on giving


STOCKBRIDGE >> Two or 300 years ago in Massachusetts, no one gave gifts on Christmas day. They gave gifts on New Year's Day. So here is a New Year's gift wrapped up in a civics lesson.

This gift to the people was developed and granted in New England. Practiced since the 17th century, the gift is the town meeting form of government.

As a citizen of the United States of America, you do not live in a democracy. You live in a republic. A republic is a representative democracy. That is, you don't decide what your government does; you vote for the people who do decide the issues and make the laws. Although the rights of the people are protected by the Constitution, the power of the people is limited to voting the representatives in and out of office.

On the state level, the power of the people may extend to having their opinions solicited, but referenda are often non-binding. State representatives still hold the power of final decision-making.

Pure democracy

In many New England towns, and therefore many Berkshire towns, however, you have the gift of living in a pure democracy. The town meeting form of government is direct democratic rule. The citizens of the community legislate. The people approve budgets. The business of the town is conducted at various town meetings.

At the annual town meeting, the town tidies up unfinished business from the current year and prepares for the coming year by approving a budget. There may be other, non-budgetary items placed on the warrant. Warrant articles are placed by the Selectmen, by town departments, or by a petition signed by at least 10 registered voters.

Special town meetings are held whenever necessary. A special town meeting deals with financial or other pertinent issues that crop up between annual meetings. Selectmen generally call a special meeting, but voters may. Citizens petition for a special meeting by gathering the signatures of 200 voters or 20 percent of the registered voters, whichever number is lower. The Selectmen have 45 days from the date of receiving the petition to hold a special town meeting.

Monthly Select Board meetings must be open and clearly advertised to facilitate citizen participation. Boards of Selectmen operate within the budget established by the people and represent the wishes of the citizens; wishes elicited and established by vote at various town meetings. The elected and appointed officials have extra duties but they are first and foremost citizens. That is they rule from within not from above. Therefore select boards are compatible with the ideal of direct democracy.

In several ways, direct democracy can be adulterated. Towns with more than 6,000 residents can and sometimes do adopt a hybrid form of governing. Called the representative town meeting government, townspeople elect representatives to vote for them at town meetings. Further, larger towns may elect a mayor and town council to represent the townspeople's interests.

Another way in which towns change, and ultimately dilute, direct democracy is by agreeing to decide certain issues cooperatively. Generally based upon a desire for cost sharing, decisions are made in joint town meetings. A board or committee is usually established and granted final decision-making power if agreement cannot be reached at the joint meeting. Therefore representatives make final decisions and the direct democratic process is diluted.

The town meeting form of government is democracy at work. Regardless of the specific issue, the most important thing is to protect the last of the pure democracies.

Up to the people

Pure democracy works only when citizens participate. The people can fritter away their power by not participating. They can vote it away by a change to the charter.

The pure democratic process can be usurped when elected and appointed officials do not understand the limits of their roles.

If elected or appointed officials remember they are first and foremost citizens no more powerful or important than their neighbors, and if the people remember they must get involved and stay involved, then for a little while longer, in small town Massachusetts, the people rule.

Happy New Year.

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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