Friday, June 2, 2006

Going to Town Meeting or, Rediscovering Direct Democracy

On May 9, Beth and I attended our first town meeting. This seems to be a peculiarity of life in New England. Once a year, the town has a meeting in which residents are welcome to speak their minds on various issues and to vote. It was an interesting process.

I was disappointed by the low turnout. In a town of over 6,000 people, I don't think any of the Articles received more than 325 votes. That's pretty sad, especially to someone who cherishes the idea of democracy and who thinks that direct democracy should be considered a nobler system than representative democracy.

The way things worked is that there were five uncontested elections and two or three other Articles that were voted on by paper ballot without public discussion. The balloting for these issues was open all day, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. At 6 p.m., the town meeting began.

I don't believe that the room had more than 250 people in it at any time during the meeting. For each of the remaining Articles, there was public discussion. Anyone who wanted to say their piece on any particular issue was invited to come forward to speak into the microphone in front of the stage. When everyone who wanted to speak to a particular issue had done so, we voted on the article in question. It was all Yea or Nay. A couple of Articles were voted on by secret ballot (dropping a "Yes" or "No" card into a box), but most were voted on by the raising of voter cards to signify our "Yea" or "Nay". Some results were obvious and were not tallied. Others were less apparent and were tallied.

I went in expecting just to listen, but I ended up going up to the microphone a few times. Much to my surprise, even Beth went up to the microphone once. The issue on the agenda that was of most importance to both of us (and which we felt most strongly compelled to speak out about) was an early item on the agenda. It had to do with whether the town was in favor of moving towards a municipally run curbside trash removal and recycling program.

While this town has very much to be proud of, its current recycling rate should be a source of great shame. I wasn't trying to make anyone feel ashamed, but I did want to make a point of fostering a sense that a much higher recycling rate is very easily attainable and should really be a community goal.

After a while, Beth and I were both pretty famished, as we hadn't eaten before going to the meeting. Beth's legs were also falling asleep from sitting for so long. So when the few issues that seemed most vital had been dispensed with and the next couple of items scheduled were the least interesting to us, we took the opportunity to leave for a dinner break. After eating, Beth wanted to go back home. So she drove us home and I headed back out to catch the tail end of the meeting.

I spoke up on another issue or two towards the end. Beth watched on the TV. (As mentioned before, this town has a lot to be proud of. One such thing is that it has its own television station that broadcasts various meetings (annual town meeting, zoning board meetings, town select board meetings), among other things). I haven't yet caught a rerun of the town meeting. Perhaps I will someday. I would like to. Partly because I think it'd be fun to point and laugh at myself, but more because of the discussion that I missed while we were out to dinner.

In general, I subscribe to the point of view that a single vote is pretty irrelevant in terms of making a real difference. Of course, if you've read my campaign web site, you'll know that I still very strongly believe that the act of voting is extremely important. Saying "here I am and I count" is generally more meaningful than is the content of any individual vote. But here's the thing about what I missed:

We, as a voting body, were somewhere between the size of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. This means that we were really quite a small number of people making our decisions. This was direct democracy, and I hope that someone who didn't attend this year's meeting (either here in Newport or in some other town) will read this blog entry and decide, based on my next sentence, to attend next year's meeting.

If I had been present for the votes I missed, and if I had voted "yea" for one of them, my vote would have been the vote that pushed the balance of the Article from a losing tie to a winning majority.

How's that for a wake up call as to the importance of participation?

As I said, I would like to catch a rerun of the town meeting. I'm very interested now in hearing the debate on that Article that lost by virtue of a tie. I will probably come out of it thinking what I thought going in: I really don't have any strong opinion on it either way. Or I might discover that I would have been opposed to the measure anyway, and not feel at all bad about not breaking the tie. But I might (and here's where the possibility is extremely interesting) end up kicking myself because by missing that vote, I missed out on a chance to do some real good.

Now, it may be woth noting that we really weren't dealing with the world's most weighty issues. We weren't voting to enact or repeal any laws. Basically, we were deciding things like whether we were interested in raising our own taxes in order to better equip our fire department. (I'm proud to say that we pretty overwhelmingly were--and that's the only result that I'm going to report here in this blog entry. (If you want to know what else we voted on and how we decided, I'm sure it's matter of public record...and announcing voting results really isn't my point here))

The point is: When you have a chance to participate in democracy, you should take that chance. Your participation might just be more important than you ever expected.


  1. Glad to finally get our internet connection back up so I can catch up - it's amazing how lost I felt without it for just 4 days.

    So, you're not only a declared candidate for President, but also a politician (two things not necessarily synonymous)...imagine that! I'm very proud of both you & Bethers. Hugs & kisses all around.

    It was great seeing you last week, but Beth was much missed!

    Love, Big Sis

  2. No, no, no. Definitely not a politician. Just a concerned citizen.