More than once it has been called the purest form of democracy. And while some may quibble with the adjective, there is no doubt that annual town meetings — in all their messy, colorful, argumentative and sometimes droning-on-at-length glory — remain at heart one of the finest examples of democracy at work.
Tuesday marks the launch of the full political season on the Vineyard with three annual town meetings set to take place on the same night in Edgartown, West Tisbury and Oak Bluffs.
The three stages for this democracy simulcast are the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, the West Tisbury school gymnasium and the regional high school Performing Arts Center in Oak Bluffs. Voters will eat an early supper and head out to their respective meetings, booklets in hand and ready to conduct the annual business of the town.
And no matter how many times they may have done this, there will still be a bit of a thrill as the moderator gavels the meeting to order.
Across the three towns, the themes this year are at once common and different. As the country spirals into what may be the worst economic recession in more than thirty years, there is an anxiety about spending and a sober mood has settled over Island governments. Nevertheless, money will be spent.
Voters in West Tisbury will confront a new — and hopefully final — plan to renovate their beautiful, old, but nearly decrepit mansard-roofed town hall. It has taken the town several false starts to get it right on this project, but this time around it appears that the building committee has listened to the concerns of the citizenry and come up with a plan that preserves the integrity of the historic building while still allowing for a badly-needed renovation and facelift. The price tag is high — five million dollars plus — but some of the cost can be defrayed through the application of money from the Community Preservation Act fund. The rest will be long-term debt. The town is overdue for this project and further delays will only mean higher costs.
Voters in Oak Bluffs will face the painful reality of a red-ink year and a request for a an override to Proposition two and a half. Expenses are up, new growth is down and town leaders have the worry beads out as they struggle to balance the operating budget without cutting too deeply into services and salaries.
By contrast, Edgartown rides into Tuesday night with its reputation intact as a town that runs a tight financial ship. No general override and a tidy warrant whose centerpiece is a series of thoughtful spending requests for historic preservation. If voters agree, the Federated Church, the Edgartown Light, a Katama Air Park hangar and valuable old town documents will be rebuilt or preserved using money from the town community preservation act fund.
It all adds up to much important business for the three towns and recalls the words of a Gazette editorial published in 1954:
“Whether democracy works is up to the voters themselves, their willingness to turn out, to speak their minds, and to vote as their convictions dictate.”