Ruth Bass: Even tedious town meetings deserve a turnout

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RICHMOND >> Pure democracy can be tedious and puzzling. It can try the patience of both the "regulars" and the "newbies," each group torn between having its say and getting on with the vote. Pure democracy lives as the New England town meeting, an event that often travels surprising paths.

Idealists put town meetings up there with the American flag, an important symbol of freedom. They are Norman Rockwell, motherhood and apple pie, at least in the imaginations of the hopeful. They are also the legislative branch of small-town government.

In actuality, town meeting often gathers the same people every spring, many of them gray-haired. That's when townspeople are invited to vote on whatever makes the town go – budgets, by-law changes, zoning adjustments, mosquitoes, public health, new trucks, trash disposal, etc. It's amazing how many residents are willing to let their tax money be spent by such a small group.

In between, because it's a long way from May to the end of the next fiscal year, selectmen set up extra town meetings so various housekeeping matters can be taken care of, like fixing budgets that are falling short. Occasionally a major issue emerges for one of the special meetings, like Richmond's town hall/library vote of a few years ago, or the vote earlier this month on whether to purchase Camp Marion White for a park.

While idealists believe everyone should vote in local elections and go to town meeting to have a say about how their town is run, it pretty much doesn't work that way. Small numbers — in our town a hundred or so out of about a thousand registered voters — turn up for the spring meeting, while some 300 appeared for the recent meeting about acquiring the Girl Scout camp. The other side of freedom, of course, is the freedom not to vote, the right to exchange a contentious, procedure-laden meeting for an episode of "Nashville."

But it would be nice if the town meeting next May would have 300 or more people and the potential of standing room only. Participating in a town meeting only when there's a hot issue on the table — like spending a million bucks for a park – means not being totally responsible for the town where a person has chosen to live.

Government is not always fun, although we did have times in the past when vocal participants like John Foster, Bill Dickson, Charles Lockwood and Bob Kimball raised the ante considerably with their arguments on a wide range of subjects. Sometimes, given the right ingredients, town meeting is not tedious, and stitches get dropped in my knitting.

At other times, regular attendees and those who rarely show up try each other's patience, the one group knowing and understanding procedure and wanting to hear the pros and cons, the other there with its mind made up — yea or nay — ready to vote and go home.

For some town meeting veterans, the size of the crowd and the number of unfamiliar faces at this month's session indicated that the Camp Marion White issue would not pass. And it didn't, going down to a resounding defeat, despite the unanimous backing of the selectmen and town administrator. It was one more time when the nays were more moved to give up their evening than the yeas.

While the paper ballots, cast into a shoe box, were being counted, town officials asked everyone to stay for a vote on the final article of the meeting. Sadly, it was only the regulars who remained – the usual hundred or so. The single-issue voters already were making their way out to the jammed parking lot.

Ruth Bass has served as a selectman and on the finance committee in Richmond. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.


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