People from away
generally snicker when they hear the name of my town, Marblehead*. Sometimes the town will make one quietly proud. Other times, it truly merits the chuckles of people from fur off.
Part one of the back story: My town is
a town, in the New England political sense. We have an annually elected Board of Selectfolk and an open town meeting: a true inheritance from our sturdy Yankee past. Open town meeting means about what it says. Anyone registered to vote can show up and vote. If you're not registered, you can come anyway, take a seat on the stage where voters can keep an eye on you, and watch "democracy in action."
Marblehead's population hovers around 21,000, with some 12,000 registered voters. There isn't enough public space in town to accommodate 100 percent of the electorate if they chose to show up for meeting.
Open town meetings only work well in communities with a population, say, between 300 and 3000 people. There, it's usually possible to set aside one day in the year and get through all the public business in that day, and put every voter under one roof to do it. A quorum, however modest, stands a fair chance of being representative of the whole range of local public opinion.
In the sticks of my childhood, once towns reached 3000-6000 people, they began to adopt sensible expediencies like representative meetings and hired town managers (things that enlightened Massachusetts TINOs—towns in name only—also do). It used to be a point of pride that when population reached 10,000, a New Hampshire community applied for a city charter. That was before all them damn Massachusetts people with their starry-eyed delusions about town government began to infest--err, settle-- southern New Hampshire.
The place I grew up was a town that had been incorporated into the state capital about 100 years before I was born. We were a separate ward with a population of about 1500. Everyone pretty much knew everyone else. Even people in the other party were on speaking terms with the city councilor. We had our own representative in the General Court and people were mostly on speaking terms with her, too. As a ward of a small city, voters had more voice in government than most residents of most Massachusetts towns, including this one.
Open town meetings in communities the size of mine combine dubious historical tradition with Massachusetts ward politics at its seamiest. I avoid the damn thing as much as possible, but as the spouse of a town employee there are times when I must
show up, and even when I don't, I get the blow by blow. In 39 years as a registered voter here, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times when the public business got done in one night. "Democracy in action" means a meeting packed with the adherents of one special interest group or the other. This has been made much easier since the advent of local cable TV. Many of those for a measure simply wait at home watching until their pet issue is on the horizon. They dash up to Meeting, wait for a few votes, say their piece if so minded, vote, carry their question, and leave. Democracy in action my arse.
So, the civics lesson is that anyone can pack an open town meeting for anything, and odds are the outcome will in no way represent the whole of popular sentiment.
In the future, we'll introduce an individual who is demanding what amounts to a private town meeting, which he hopes to pack. His goal is to flip a bird at zoning ordinances arrived at by two-thirds majority of previous town meetings (such as they were), at the state land court, at several successive levels of the Massachusetts court system, and incidentally at his neighbours. None of this, mind, is in the abstract. This person built a house knowing that he was violating the law. He has lost every attempt at law to remedy this self-inflicted wound, probably spending much more than the house is worth in this quixotic undertaking. Now he intends to take advantage of the town's silly political relic, the open town meeting, and hold a meeting to make his illegal acts legal. And I'm damned if he isn't likely to get away with it.
Marblehead, meet Athol.
* Originally Marble Harbour, the name derived from the white rocks at the harbour mouth seen by the first Europeans when they arrived. On landing, they discovered the white wasn't marble: it was bird shit. In the nearly 400 years since then, not much has changed: things here are seldom what they seem.