Ruth Bass | Town meeting: Unpredictable democracy


RICHMOND - After an era of squabbling about everything from a stone monument to sidewalk signs, Lenox zipped through its town meeting with low attendance and apparently little or no controversy. Perhaps it's an omen for the rest of us.

Town meeting can be short. It can also be interminable. Given the fact that schools and town halls tend to provide chairs that provide maximum discomfort, those who stay the course for a long one should get chocolate bars when they leave. The single issue is folks, of course, always leave as soon as "their" article is over with.

These gatherings act on the budget for the next year and innumerable other matters -- from weed control in ponds to whether a school should be closed or if money should be spent to kill mosquitoes.

Before we built our house in Richmond, we had never been to a town meeting. In those early days, the event was at Town Hall in winter, and chairs were arranged in a large U shape, so you could often see the face of the speakers.

We, of course, did not speak. No one said we couldn't, but it seemed ap parent that neophytes should be silent and learn the works before com menting on anything. We quickly learned that some of the speakers were well-informed, articulate and serious. Others came to stir up trouble, and a few were there not only to express their opinions but to get a few laughs.

Drama, comedy and government, all in one package.

After a few years, we played a game when the town warrant arrived by mail. The object was to choose which article would absorb the most time. We did this little exercise because we realized that the large school budget, plus many other sizable attacks on the taxpayer's wallet, were rarely the prime targets.

The word truck was quite likely to set off a storm of discussion about whether it was needed, whether the present truck had been properly cared for and whether the road crew could get along with some lesser vehicle. That was a fairly sure winner except for one other item: a radio.

It didn't matter whether the radio was wanted for civil defense, for the highway department, for the fire department or any other entity.

Those five letters could fire up our town meeting in a flash. This town could discuss the merits and demerits of a radio for an hour. It took so long that by the next day we couldn't remember how it came out.

When we first lived here, the annual town election took place the same day as the meeting, so while the moderator was counting raised hands on a road repair article, a row of women were on the stage, counting paper ballots behind his back. They were supposed to maintain secrecy, even though the audience was dying to know who was winning and losing. (We had lots of contests at that time.) It did not take a genius to figure out that some of the people running for office were getting special signals from the vote tabulators.

A few years later, someone decided the town should see how its officers were doing first and hold the election after town meeting took place. The annual town meeting was in the winter then, and the proposal passed easily, setting the election for a Saturday and inspiring one avid skier to leap up and protest, "But we'll all be at Stowe!" The group snickered and ignored him.

You always have to wonder what you'll get on the next round.

We've had civility, even affability. We've had abuse, arguments, an occasional swear word, belly laughs and chuckles. We've had misinformation presented well and good information presented badly. Every year is different, and we can only hope that Lenox has created the path and we won't need cushions this time around.

Ruth Bass has held several town offices in Richmond. Her web site is


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