From the “On Circuit Avenue, And All About Town” column by Louise Aldrich Bugbee in the Vineyard Gazette edition of March 8, 1974:
It’s no great wonder that I felt at home in New England, by the sea. Town meeting made me realize that without ever having seen the sea and having been away from New England for several generations, it was all part of me. I didn’t understand it, but it came up in daily conversations. “If that’s what you think, speak right up in meeting and say so,” and, “It’s time I had a new dress. I’ve been wearing this one to mill and to meeting,” passed over my head. If I thought about “meeting” at all I must have thought it was a church meeting. We had those in Pennsylvania. We never had town meetings, and the people who used the phrases had never attended a town meeting.
We “cleared the decks” and “got everything shipshape.” We “got a line on” things, we “anchored” everything from peach trees to canvas over the hay stack. Anything done well turned out to be “seaworthy.” “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning,” hinted to farmers that it might be a poor day for cutting a field of hay. Sometimes up there in the mountains we had “clear sailing,” and sometimes we couldn’t “make leeway.” Sometimes, when a neighbor had “taken on a full cargo” of liquor he “listed to port” a little. Others “cut a wide wake.”
Just recently I attended my first town meeting. I’m not sure I understand it, but I have a feeling it is the grass roots of democracy. A democracy doesn’t guarantee that its citizens be wise, or lacking in self interest or even unemotional. But it should guarantee majority rule and in town meeting any voter can stand up and state his opinions. If the majority agrees with him, his opinion counts.
I was rather emotional about the whole thing. Some of it amused me and I sat back, feeling a good bit of comforting laughter building up inside. When they talked of money I felt panic. I knew I was a tax-payer and it was a taxpayer’s amount of money they were talking about. At one point I wrung my hands and wailed, inwardly and inaudibly, “I’m ruined. I’m ruined. How can I ever pay a million dollars?” I even took the count of the number of people present and divided the million by that number and screamed, inwardly, of course, “It’s too much. We’ll never be able to raise it.”
I found out the meaning of the phrase I’ve heard and used, many times, ‘Stand up and be counted.’ The constable did the counting and if it hadn’t been for my worry over that million dollars I had to pay I would have stood up and said, “That isn’t enough for the man. I saw his yearly pay was only $75.”
On most things we took a voice vote, which isn’t exactly fair, because those with the loudest voices carry more weight. But when there is doubt, a standing vote is called for and then it is time to stand up and be counted.
A voice vote can be emotional, as I found out, sitting quietly while friends on one side raised their voices in favor of one bit of town business. They were good, sincere friends. On the other side of me were equally good and sincere friends who raised their voices in opposition. “I’m not going to speak out against either group of friends,” I said to myself, and I sat there quietly.
Then the moderator called for a standing vote and I had to think of the issue, not of people I liked, and stand up for what I believed.
The great thing about town meetings is that it is almost impossible to sit through one and not care about government. The easy way is to elect a representative, or, by not voting, allow others to elect one, and let him do all the thinking about government. We are then free to grumble a lot but things are beyond our control. It’s a lot easier not to know what is going on and go about earning a living and living our lives without the responsibility of governing ourselves. Easier but dangerous.
I left the town meeting not knowing very much about finance, law on any level, or the processes of government. But no one could leave without an awareness of how money was raised and how it was spent and how rules and regulations are made. Within the framework of constitution and federal and state laws, we can run the town the way we want to. The “we” is the collective voters. If we are farsighted and intelligent we govern ourselves well. If we are shortsighted and stupid we are the ones who will suffer. I found a lot of shortsighted self interest creeping in. I thought I noticed it in others and found it in myself. I didn’t want higher taxes for anything that I wouldn’t directly benefit from. I didn’t want the town garage at the sanitary landfill because it would mean more traffic by my house.
Town meeting isn’t a perfect form of government but I’m convinced it is the best that has been thought up so far, With everyone having a voice or a right to stand up and be counted it usually results in the greatest good for the greatest number.
Compiled by Hilary Wall