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The Wit of Man
New England town meeting meets the modern world

by Mary Carey

Photo: Pelham Town Hall


On an atypically balmy Veteran's Day eve in November, 1999, dozens of Amherst residents are arriving at the middle school on Chestnut Street for the fall session of town meeting – the biannual assembly that votes on the town's budget and makes many of its major decisions.

     As always, supporters of Amherst's sister-city relationship with La Paz Centro, Nicaragua, are selling doughnuts and coffee outside the auditorium as members take their places inside. Seating at TM is never assigned, but most of the 150 or so regular attendees favor one spot or another. Fiscal conservatives tend to cluster at right front, experts on the rules to the left, and dissidents toward the back center. Dislike for Amherst's outsized tenant UMass is the predominant sentiment in some quarters.

     Harrison Gregg '80G, the almost ever-cheerful moderator, who is associate director of institutional research at Amherst College, is at the podium, holding something aloft. Someone has lost a pair of crocheting scissors. It could belong to any of a number of women who pursue their needlework at the drawn-out meetings, and, sure enough, one steps forward to retrieve it. The evening is beginning to come into focus. Discussions are taking place here and there on the issues to be brought forward for general consideration. Now the selectmen – a five-person board required to attend all sessions of town meeting, and to execute its decisions – have finished their pre-meeting discussion in the band-room behind the stage, and are taking their seats up front.


"There are 240 town meeting members, and 126 constitutes a quorum," announces Gregg, using the stylized, semiformal language often employed by moderators of these New England institutions. "We have a quorum, so we will now begin."

     Within minutes the assembly is engaged in a heated debate over whether to revisit a question it had already voted on last week: the recommendation to add a proposed, UMass-owned conference center to the list of uses that Amherst would allow of open space north of downtown.

     Proponents had argued that a conference center would be a better use than an industrial park, which is already permitted. Opponents had raised the specter of a "wedding and bar mitzvah mill." And though the majority gave the conference center the thumbs-up, it didn't receive the two-thirds majority needed to make the necessary change to the zoning by-law. So the conference center is a no-go. Or maybe it isn't.

     As disappointing to some as defeat on a particular issue may be, the bigger threat to the institution of Amherst town meeting, observers say, is a growing tendency to revisit and second-guess decisions already made.

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"The general dynamic in Amherst,"
says the town's state senator Stan Rosenberg '77, "is for people to be engaged and to think and to debate. In fact, in Amherst that is preferred to actually making decisions.

     "Witness the parking garage," he adds, citing a classic example of the "Ain't-over-'til-it's-over" phenomenon that could, some fear, spell the end of Amherst's centuries-old town-meeting tradition. The garage debate is recent history maddeningly familiar to a sizable portion of the populace.

     "For twenty-five years, board after board after board has said that Amherst, really really needs a parking garage," says Rosenberg. "The state legislature gives them 75 percent of the cost of building one. And four years later they're still debating, not only whether there should be a garage, but how many spaces there should be in it; whether it should be above ground or below ground; whether it should be reinforced or not reinforced; whether it should be capable of having an addition or not.

     "Any other community in the commonwealth," says the senator with some exasperation, "would have the garage built by now and have an application in for the next one."

     Tonight, however, insofar as the conference center is concerned, what has been done will be allowed to rest. At least for this week. Speaking against the motion to reconsider, Seymour Friedman, a high school math teacher, cites longtime member T.O. Wilkinson to the effect that issues should be reconsidered for three reasons only: if the vote in question was extremely close; if it was taken by only the barest quorum; or if inadequate information was available at the time. None of those conditions pertained in this case, Friedman argues.

     "The proponents of this argument had their bite of the apple," states Friedman. Applause breaks out, which Gregg quells. "We do not applaud speakers at town meeting," he reminds the assembly.

     Town meeting is out of the starting gate.

     Before the night is through, members will not only have narrowly avoided revisiting the conference center, but agreed to start a dialogue on universal health care; endorsed the idea that the unmarried partners of town workers should be eligible for insurance benefits; and resolved that the United States Navy should stop using the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for target practice. As is frequently the case, members broached still larger issues along the way: As Gregg recalled later, these included the freedom of the individual vs. society, and the rights of minorities, and the philosophical question of balances of power.

     While often irritating and apparently obstructive of the flow of civic business, such debates can be inspiring as well, says Gregg. "I can remember many nights being very much moved," the moderator says.

Photo: Jensen inside Pelham Town Hall
  ^  Political scientist Laura Jensen inside Pelham Town Hall

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In Massachusetts, some 303 communities preserve some form of the ancient New England practice of town meeting: a gathering of citizens to conduct their common business. Every "TM" has its own character, which to some degree reflects the character of the town. "Fortunately or unfortunately, Williamsburg is known for an involved citizenry," says 'Burgie select chair Fred Goodhue '89G, making understated Yankee reference to the sometimes contentious meetings in his picturesque town. (The recent hot-button topic has been whether to link up with the Northampton bikeway.)

     State senator Stephen Brewer '71 says the town of Winchendon in his district is noted for the length of its warrants, or agendas: At a given meeting, this Amherst-sized town of 6,000 may consider seventy or eighty items. The citizens of Barre, says Brewer, are "noted for doing their entire town business for the year in two hours," while Warren and Spencer "are known for feisty town meetings." (They know what factionalism is in Warren and Spencer, Brewer says with due respect.)

     And so it goes, for as many TM communities as you can name. Amherst may have some of the longest town meetings ­ in both 1995 and '96, the spring sessions continued for sixteen nights. Belchertown claims to have assembled the most people in state history – 1,910 – at a single meeting. Bucolic Pelham boasts the oldest continually-used meeting hall in existence. In South Hadley, citizens still repair together to a nearby church for lunch. "And Leverett," according to Jay DiPucchio '82G, who in a former role as Franklin County administrator attended twenty-six town meetings a year, "has one of the best town meetings around, because it's so civil."

     Patricia Vinchesi '82, current director of community relations at UMass and a former town administrator in Whately, has also been to a number of town meetings across the state. The meeting in Framingham "goes on forever," she says – no surprise when the 64,536 citizens of the state's largest town "are trying to do a $130 million budget with a representative town meeting." But "Amherst compares with no other town meeting I've been to," says Vinchesi. "It's certainly not an efficient vehicle for them," she adds.

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Inefficiency was much less an issue in the original New England town meeting. The degree of democracy may have been partial, but the groups of immigrant Englishmen who developed it were small enough, and far enough from home, to give it a try. According to The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action, a 1999 book by SUNY professor Joseph Zimmerman, the first recorded instance of a face-to-face assembly based on the principle of equality was held in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629. While limited to men in good standing in the church, early New England town meetings contained the germ of the one-person, one-vote ideal, and have been revered in our democracy ever since.

     Town meetings, wrote Thomas Jefferson a century-and-a-half later, "have proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government, and for its preservation." Ralph Waldo Emerson expounded thus on virtues of town meeting in Concord in 1882: "It is the consequence of this institution that not a school house, a public pew, a bridge, a pound, a mill-dam, hath been set up, or pulled down, or altered, or bought, or sold, without the whole population of this town having a voice in the affair."

     Actually, writes columnist George Will, citing scholar Michael Schudson, "in the Concord where Emerson boasted of 'the whole population of the town having a voice,' town meeting participation averaged 42 percent." Yet Emerson's assessment ­ "A general contentment is the result" – still satisfies, and the appeal of town meeting persists. During World War II, illustrator Norman Rockwell made an ingenuous Yankee in a leather jacket, standing to speak in a town meeting in Arlington, Vermont, his icon for freedom of speech. (The image immediately proved its worth in a campaign to sell war bonds, and the original hangs, almost in state, with the other "Four Freedoms" paintings in a rotunda-like space at the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.) Zimmerman sees evidence of the enduring fascination with this Yankee institution in the televised "town meetings" used by President Clinton in the 1990s. On a more rarefied level, theorists of the "communitarian" school of thought see town meeting as a model that localities nationwide should emulate.

     The tradition of open town meeting, in which each and every resident is eligible to show up and vote, remains strongest in Maine and Vermont, Zimmer writes. On its way out in Rhode Island, and to a lesser extent in Connecticut, town meeting continues to be modified in New Hampshire, where it's being combined with town-wide referendums.

     Similarly in Massachusetts: Here, more and more of the towns that haven't opted for a mayor/council form – as Northampton did in 1883, Easthampton in 1996, and South Hadley may decide to do this spring – are moving to representational town meetings, like Amherst's, in which members are elected by popular votes from their neighborhoods. Of the 303 Massachusetts communities that hold town meeting, 262 give a vote to every resident of the town. The remaining forty-one have representational assemblies. (Such assemblies remain open to all citizens, but only elected members can vote.)

     "If you consider the size of the body compared to the size of the population, it's still highly representative," says Deborah Koch, an Amherst TM member and former congressional aide who now directs foundation relations at UMass. "Double the number of people in Amherst town meeting, and you get the number of people in Congress. Congress represents 260 million people ­ town meeting represents 30,000."

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It is large and diverse towns such as Amherst that face the most serious challenges to town meeting governance, observers say. Among the worrisome trends are lagging attendance at meetings – perhaps because they go on too long – and the fact that Amherst TM is an increasingly imperfect cross-section of the town's population. Younger, poorer, and minority-group voters are chronically underrepresented among the elected members.

     But Amherst has also had increasing difficulty filling TM positions, says local businessman and selectman Hill Boss. In the absence of contested elections, representatives can feel they're answerable to no one but themselves. Boss says he's "seen a much greater emphasis on bullying" in town meeting in recent years.

     "Last town meeting, a respected member got up, pointed his finger at the select board, and said, 'You big boys have to understand how the rest of us feel' – as though he understands how the rest of town meeting feels!"

     Boss is not alone in arguing, as well, that the effectiveness of Amherst's meeting is undermined by preoccupation with national and global issues. The nickname "People's Republic of Amherst" is a well-worn local joke. The elected meeting's resemblance to "a little legislature" may be one reason "people treat it as if it were the general assembly of the Federation of Planets," says select chair Bryan Harvey '77 – an associate provost on campus and a veteran not only of town, but of UMass student, government.

     A related problem is grandstanding. Two years ago, TM member and UMass physics professor Arthur Swift took it upon himself to clock all speakers at town meeting and submit the results to the Amherst Bulletin. "A few people objected," says Swift. "I think it was mostly the people whom I identified as being most troublesome."

     Partly as a result of this initiative, a study group recommended and won approval for a five-minute limit on comments. The innovation has worked admirably, Swift says. "Long-term, however, I'm not optimistic. There've been a couple of recent issues ­ the parking garage and the hotel/conference center questions ­ where town meeting just wasn't acting sensibly, and lost its head."

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The protracted debate on the parking garage, says Harvey, "has certainly put all these issues in sharp relief. In many ways, it brought out the worst in the town meeting form," he says. "I think we're in a period where it's an open question whether the form can adapt itself once again, and survive."

     The issues were much the same, Harvey adds, in 1938, when Amherst changed from the open to representative form. Then, too, the prevailing criticism of TM was that it had become a debating society. There was "a very strong desire," says Harvey, to maintain town meeting, not to go to the council form.

     "The question now, sixty years later, is does town meeting work, and if not, is it possible to fix it? Can it really adapt to the circumstances of today?"

     There are many who hope it can. "Any town with two or three colleges in it," says Boston lawyer and Belmont moderator Henry Hall '53, "is bound to have, should we say, interesting points of view." A former president of the Massachusetts Moderators Association, Hall agrees that town meetings can be trying. (He was once called "a combination of a Hitler and a Stalin" by a disgruntled TM member; "I still haven't figured that one out," he says.) "Even if it's sometimes kind of muddling through, I still honestly believe in the town meeting," says Hall.

     Stephen Brewer, the state senator who's been to his share of town meetings and who has a framed print of the Rockwell illustration on the wall at the foot of his bed, agrees. Of town meeting and participatory democracy in general he says: "I believe it has fits and starts; it's inefficient and cumbersome. But who among us would ever trade our form of governing with any on the planet? Mussolini made all the trains run on time. But who'd want him in charge?"

     Such devotion to town meeting finds some support in a remark by UMass professor Laura Jensen, who attends the open assembly in Pelham. Local government and self-determination have always been important in the American tradition, says Jensen. A former composer, she says it was participation in local government in Connecticut that convinced her to go back to graduate school in political science.

     "There are a lot of conflicting tendencies out there," says Jensen. "At the same time that places like Amherst want to move towards professional administration and professional decision-making, you have some of the big cities saying, 'Let's get rid of the professionals ­ let's have officials who are accountable to the citizenry who voted them in."

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Last on the warrant of Amherst's 1999 Fall Town Meeting, is the resolution calling on President Clinton to halt Navy bombing of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. As always, the debate is intense, with poet and UMass professor Martín Espada and other supporters on one side, and members who think Amherst ought to confine itself to town affairs on the other.

     "This is a place for local issues, where we understand the situation," says member Judith Yeaton in arguing for dismissal of the question. "In cases like this we're totally dependent on outside knowledge. What we get is one-sided information and pathos ­ the question is to some extent beyond our competence."

     "I don't want the military making decisions for us," counters member Isaac BenEzra. "That's not what America's all about." Besides, puts in another supporter of the resolution, town meeting couldn't design a national health plan, either, but that didn't stop it from making a recommendation.

     Reflecting on the scene later, Espada will assert that the turning point came when someone suggested that a motion to dismiss implied that Amherst waived its right to vote.

     "That really gets their backs up," says Espada. "That was like a roomful of wet cats. As soon as it became clear that the motion was about depriving town meeting the right to vote, it was all over."

     And so, in the traditional parlance, the motion to petition the president of the United States is "overwhelmingly carried." Harvey moves "to dissolve this town meeting." The din of informal discussion commences as the motion carries ­ though not before Gregg, mindful of the prerogatives of town meeting, has added, "That's a debatable motion."

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