Carole Owens: Our changing local democracies


STOCKBRIDGE — Beginnings are fascinating. Whether considering the beginning of our vast country or of our tiny Berkshire villages, discovering where something started is instructive. If we trace progress from the roots, do we make better decisions now?

Indian Town was established in 1737 and "labored under great difficulties by reason of its not being incorporated into a town." The inhabitants petitioned the General Court in Boston for permission to incorporate. In 1739, the Court granted their wish. "An Act erecting the Plantation on the Housatonnock River into a township by the name of Stockbridge."

Duly constituted, Stockbridge called its first town meeting.

"June 23, 1739 — Ordered that Ephraim Williams Esq., Captain John Konkapot, and Lt. Paul Umpaeecheanah principal inhabitants of the plantation are fully authorized and empowered to assemble the freeholders and other qualified voters, as soon as possible..."

Interesting how specific and limited the roles were. The selectmen were authorized and empowered to call the town meeting. That's it. They had no other function. Once the town meeting was officially called, the townsmen had the power to govern themselves, that is, make and pass laws, impose taxes, lay roads, and build schools. Truly it was a government of, by and for the people.

However, not all people could vote. Only men who were freeholders (landowners, also called proprietors), and "other qualified voters." That is, other men of sufficient standing by dint of education, purse, or position.

"The Proprietors are hereby empowered to choose a Moderator and all other such officers for the better regulation and ordering of their affairs."


May 26, 1767, in the newly incorporated town of Lenox, the selectmen called the first town meeting. As the first order of business, they "voted and chose the Moderators of the meeting."

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As with selectmen, the role of moderator was specific and limited: a moderator presided over a single meeting. It was the first order of business at each of the early meetings in Lenox, Stockbridge, Sheffield — all of south county. The same person may be elected, or it might be different men, but it was always the limited role of "presiding over and regulating the meeting, deciding questions of order and making public declaration of all votes."

Once the selectmen called the meeting, and the moderator presided over it, governance was the job of the people. As time passed, layer after layer was added, and soon the distance between the people and their power to govern grew greater. Today, many say that the town meeting form of government is the closest thing on earth to a pure democracy. Perhaps, but it is less pure than it was originally.

For example, while it is possible for an individual to add an item to the warrant, usually the select board writes the warrant. For example, while the moderator is still elected by the people, it is not for a single meeting but for a term of years. Also, in Lenox and Stockbridge, the moderator's duties extend to appointing the members of the Finance Committee. In Sheffield, the moderator suggests candidates to the Select Board that appoints members to the Finance Committee. In Great Barrington, Finance Committee members are still elected by the people as town officers were in the 18th century.

Today, the Massachusetts General Laws refer to ours as "a representative town meeting form of government." Duties of the select boards expanded far beyond simply calling meetings. As the duties multiplied, there was an urge for selectmen to hire more staff including town administrators and town managers.

Many feel very strongly that "professionals" are needed to run municipalities even when those municipalities are very small. Why? Perhaps government is more complex or regulations more difficult to understand or abide by. Perhaps some feel our forefathers were smarter, better educated, more able than we to self-govern. Others disagree and want, for example, the people rather that the town moderator to appoint finance committee members.

Recently the Stockbridge moderator did not re-appoint two Finance Committee members citing the length of their service. Eighteen years was too long, he said. The people may have concurred, deciding new blood was helpful or the people may have decided experience was more important.

Either way, the moderator was a man with a good sense of humor since he has served as moderator almost twice 18 years.

If we trace progress from our roots, do we make better decisions? Over time, locally, we moved from a more democratic form to a more representative form of government. Slowly we might move back, and as a first step, have the people elect finance committee members.

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


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