Over the next month or so, residents of Mount Desert Island towns will have the privilege of attending their respective annual town meetings. In a larger political world so often dominated by spin doctors, big money donors and lobbyists, rare is the occasion when people can gather with friends and neighbors to hash issues out face to face.
Years ago, town meetings often would go on for days. In many respects, they were the high social events of the year. Now, with meetings being broadcast on local access television, and with other demands on time and responsibilities, attendance is only a fraction of what it once was. But attendance alone is no barometer of the depth of the public’s affection for the institution.
If one were to suggest, as some have done in the past, that the time has come to abandon the town meeting form of government, the negative reaction would be swift and sure. Living in a place run by town meeting apparently is more popular than actually going to town meeting itself.
While much of the business transacted can seem mundane, town meetings are one of the few places left where even one person can make a difference. Years ago in Bar Harbor, town meeting bogged down over a question involving spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to rehabilitate the Crooked Road. It was rife with potholes, frost heaves and broken pavement.
Voters were not in a spending mood. The bond issue looked to be going down to defeat. Merrill “Tinker” Bunker, who passed away just last week, arose, walked slowly to microphone and shared how he had been driving in to the meeting on that road in the fog and how his pickup truck was banging and lurching over the bumps. Suddenly, he shared, things smoothed out and the rattling and shaking stopped. He stopped his truck and got out to investigate. “I realized right then I’d gotten off the pavement onto the Bangor Hydro power line right of way,” he said to a chorus of laughs from the crowd.
Another voter moved the question, and the voice vote to fix the road was unanimous.
What is done in the name of the people at town meeting is more carefully scrutinized there than anywhere else. First, managers and department heads labor over the budget. It then goes to elected officials before being passed along to yet another oversight board, the much respected warrant committee. From there, it goes back to the primary boards to craft a compromise over any remaining points of contention. Finally it goes onto the warrant for decision by the ultimate legislature – the people.
The ability to influence how local tax dollars are spent indeed is a gift.
Town meetings, by and large, come just once a year. So grab a copy of the town report, sharpen a pencil, bring your knitting, and call a friend to tag along, then show up. The town meeting tradition will remain only as robust as the desire of the citizens to stay involved.