By John March
Editor’s note: This fictional short story was inspired by last week’s Mount Desert town meeting.
“I don’t know, Lester, I just don’t know.”
“What’s that?” said Lester. He sat by the stove in the selectmen’s building, watching the snow as it dissolved in the mill pond. A late spring storm. It wouldn’t amount to much.
“I don’t know about this warrant article. I think we may be in trouble. Some people think Main Street should go on being a dirt road. You and I know progress has to come, but there are still people in town who think the automobile has ruined everything.”
“It’s not that, Cyrus. It’s the cost. People think their taxes are high enough already.”
“Whose side are you on?”
“Your side, of course, but if you want to improve Main Street, you’ve got to think strategically.”
This was the Lester he knew and valued.
“Isn’t it your turn to fill the wood box?”
“It was my turn, but I decided to offer you some advice instead. I was moderating town meetings in Mount Desert before you caught your first mackerel. Do you want my advice or not?”
“You go right ahead. I’m desperate enough to listen.”
“You’re afraid people will look at the price tag on those improvements and vote ‘nay.’ And that will be that for at least another year.”
“True. But I’m prepared to stand up and tell them why this project is in their best interest.”
“Won’t matter. This isn’t going to be decided on that basis.”
“On what basis, then? The Warrant Committee supports it.”
“Again, it don’t matter.”
“How long do you think this snow will keep up?”
“Rest of the afternoon.”
“So it’s a matter of psychology. You have to set the stage.”
“People want to say ‘nay’ to something. It almost don’t matter what it is, it’s just a matter of principle. You and I both know there’s something unsatisfying about a town meeting where every article is approved. People just don’t feel they’ve properly discharged their civic duty unless they’ve defeated at least one article. But once they’ve done that, the general mood is more tolerant, and your Main Street improvements will have the votes you need. You just need to get the warrant articles in the proper order. And have a good sacrificial article, something that will get people aggravated. Let the people get the naysaying out of their system.”
“Lester, I bow humbly.”
“Don’t mention it. I’m always glad to help a youngster.”
“I can manage the order of events on the warrant, but offhand I can’t think of an article likely to outrage enough people to take the spotlight off the Main Street project.”
“Easy. I’ll give you this for nothing. Chickens.”
“Chickens.” Cyrus had to admit that Lester was always one step ahead. “Care to say anymore?”
“Get that Planning Board to draft an article limiting homeowners to no more than, say, six chickens. And ban the sale of eggs. And, yes, because I know you’re going to ask, a rooster is a chicken for purposes of this new ordinance.”
“Lester, you never cease to amaze me.”
“Cyrus, you mark my words. You give them their chickens, and they’ll give you a new Main Street.”
A chill mist wrapped the elementary school on the evening of town meeting, but the turnout was strong. The moderator led the voters through articles that were mostly hardy perennials, appearing year after year with only small variation. Then came article 18, “To see if the voters of the town of Mount Desert will vote to enact an animal husbandry ordinance.”
Silence fell over the meeting as people read the text of the article. Heads shook in disbelief. Then George Peabody, white haired and a little stooped with age, rose from his chair in the fourth row.
“Would you ask the chairman of the Planning Board to come to the podium and take a few questions about this ordinance?”
“Yes, certainly. Mr. Childs?”
“Yes, I’m happy to answer any questions.”
“Thank you. Sir, can you tell me what in God’s name possessed your committee to write this ordinance?”
“Well, some complaints about chickens have been received.”
“And it was the considered view of your committee that the best way to address the chicken problem in this town was to (a) limit the number of chickens I can keep, (b) forbid me to let them out, and (c) prevent me from selling eggs? Do I have that right?”
“That’s correct. We think that will solve the problem.”
“Mr. Childs, I appreciate all the hard work your committee does, and I’m sure it was no easy task to write this ordinance, so I thank you. But I do have one more question. Right now I have a dozen chickens. Under this ordinance will I have to kill six of them just to stay on the right side of the law?
“Unfortunately, the answer is yes. We all have to conform to the law. If this presents a problem, I am advised that the town will send an animal control officer to your residence to remove the excess chickens.”
“I see. Provided, however, that this ordinance is in fact adopted tonight.”
“Mr. Moderator? I call the question.”
Moments later the gymnasium rang with a chorus of “nays” as the chicken ordinance was roundly defeated. And not long thereafter, the Main Street project was approved with only perfunctory discussion. It was late, and people were tired. Cyrus glanced briefly toward the selectmen’s table, and Lester gave him a significant look. Outside, the mist was lifting. Tomorrow would be a good day.
John March lives in Seal Harbor