I've been studying this subject for thirty years now and I've concluded that we're doing it quite a bit better than you are. In act, some of you aren't any longer even paying any attention at all to the problem, and every year that passes more of you are choosing to go on holiday rather than attend to the duties and delights that history and geography and circumstance have laid at your disposal.My involvement in the events of last Saturday was initiated Friday morning by the failure to appear of an alternative candidate for the office of moderator and a corresponding lack of persons interested in voting for a man or woman who might have engineered our run through the terrain of local self-government over a more predictable grade and on better-ballasted tracks than I like to lay. So it was that we convened at ten o'clock Saturday morning, and by three in the afternoon when the hall was emptied we had delivered to ourselves that gift of freedom and democracy that much of the world would die to achieve and that Americans commonly ignore, misuse or fear.
We must acknowledge the boredom. The seats are hard, one's neighbors uncomfortably close, the warrant replete with articles that law or convention require but that engage neither heart nor intellect. My instruction to the voters for our disposition of the first twenty articles was to ask no questions, vote yes when called upon to vote, and to show first time attendees by our example that we do what we must do and save ourselves for later trying out our grand ideas of what we might do.
We elected a cemetery trustee, settled the methods for collection of current and back taxes and the method of tax liens. We authorized our selectmen to borrow money, to sell tax-acquired property, and to interdict the flow of alewives in the Sheepscot River according to state law and local practice. We instructed them to set values on newly built or rebuilt real property, to shuffle money between some accounts, to spend in this fiscal year the education money we raised last year. Fifty thousand dollars capitalized the administration account without objection. Likewise, sixty-three thousand for salaries.
I'll not tell you that there was no waste or foolishness in these items and amounts, or that everybody liked every article. Was one thousand dollars the right amount to pay for "office cleaning"? I never spent a nickel on office cleaning during my twelve years as selectmen, nor did any of my predecessors, so far as the town reports show, over two centuries. My fellow selectman and I did not enjoy indoor plumbing, either, and the only office machinery I inherited upon taking office in 1977 was a hand-crank adding machine. Times change; amenities accrue. The Meeting House Caretaker gets six hundred dollars these days; I paid Clifton Walker fifty. Guy Fleming, before me, gave him thirty.
But there was nothing to get excited about there. You think the constable gets paid too much? Get yourself appointed to the job and turn some of your salary back to the town. But don't clog up the meeting arguing about it. Unless you put your complaint in the form of an sonnet, a limerick, or at least a rhymed couplet that incidentally, cleverly, subtly ridicules a person or expenditure secondary to your primary thrust, or that reveals your own confusion or conflicted feelings about your subject. We will waste as much time as any voter requires on a very minor point, but we expect to be entertained while we wallow and divert..
Better moderators, their suits creased and their rules of order firmly in hand, will want nevertheless to adopt our slovenly convention regarding multipurpose articles such as the list of funds accepted from the legislature (twenty items); salaries (twenty-eight offices and amounts); and charitable contributions (sixteen lines). I announce that I expect a motion to waive reading. Without looking up from my study of the next article (I like to read each one at least a few minutes before engaging it, for whatever benefit this may bring to my professional conduct), I hear some noises and detect a vague raising and lowering of hands that I pronounce, "moved, seconded, and so voted." By this expedient we save ourselves much tedium.
Eventually Article twenty-one stood to be kicked around for its allotted hour. Would we vote to "raise and appropriate a sum not to exceed $7,500 and to authorize the Selectmen to hire architectural or engineering services to develop preliminary plans for a multipurpose building for the town"? There was much more to this than a strict reading implied. The anticipated cost of such a combination fire house and town office was in the six to seven hundred thousand dollar range, subject to partial amortization through the sale of the buildings currently housing these services. Why didn't we approach this project more directly, by asking for approval of the concept, and then funding it? Lawyers. Or a lawyer, at any rate. The one the building committee consulted despite our success with our own more straightforward construction projects and home-grown warrant articles in the past.
The public didn't want to get into that kind of money. Taxes are high enough. We just bought the current town office building seven or eight years ago (something about wanting indoor toilets). Our fire house is perhaps only too crowded because our trucks are too many or too large. But neither did anyone want to diminish the year-long effort of the building committee or to demoralize our dedicated firemen and first responders. There was a sense that rejection was too brutal in the face of the work and thought and planning that we all knew had been volunteered over many months by persons compensated only by the satisfaction of service.
But approval would have started us on a course toward a building I think most thought we did not require and could not well afford. Why approve the architect's fees, require more months of work, then reject the project when the budget and plans are laid before a future meeting? It just seemed too cruel. We would not tax ourselves, and we did not wish to abuse those who had concluded this idea was our best option. Someone suggested tabling the article.
I don't like tabling, and I told them so. If you table something and never again take it up, you've left an unresolved thread that could unravel in several ways, none likely to make us happy or ease the progress of future meetings. If you bring this article up for consideration later, it will still be the same thing you couldn't handle today. So we found a way through that resolved nothing, changed nothing, but hurt no one and probably will see a more palatable and clear proposal come before us within the year.
I didn't like the amendment that we passed. I said so. I also said it was a legal amendment and we would prosecute it for as long as it lived. So we added the further instruction that our selectmen "consider other options for housing town services." Did anybody think this was new ground? Probably. But every selectman in the state already has authorization "to consider options." Or they do until Homeland Security clamps down on speculative thinking. This did nothing. But more important is what it did not do. Nobody said no. We passed an article that approved spending seventy-five hundred dollars on preliminary plans for an unspecified (and unrestricted) proposal to accommodate our needs. This is just about what we did a year ago when we approved four thousand dollars for our committee to look into the matter initially. I liked it better after we'd debated and approved it.
So we've given the committee more money. And we've reconfirmed its mandate. And we've tacitly allowed that we'd probably not object to another bay for fire equipment. But we doubt we need a new town office, probably, and maybe the guesses for what our existing oddball buildings would bring in a bad real estate market were too optimistic, and we had enough trouble paying last year's taxes (those of us who have paid them) without committing ourselves to another mil a year for a score of years. So we punted that soggy ball far enough down the rutted field that by the time the committee drags it back into scoring range again they'll have refined their sense of what we're good for so that we'll only harass them a little before falling down before their logic.
I asked around after the meeting. Nobody was angry. Some were perplexed. Precisely what did we do? (Pretty much what we'd done before.) Was anything resolved? (Not much, in that we still have no building before us, no plan; everything we needed, in terms of expressing our collective limits in a decent and humane fashion.)
We ate lunch. We raised everything asked for every other account. We approved nine articles for the fire department. When we came to Article forty-six we were tired. Fifteen organizations asked us to contribute a total of almost eleven thousand dollars toward their good works. There was potential for ugliness. Both the Alna Animal Shelter and the Lincoln County Animal Shelter wanted money for their spay and neuter programs. We had already argued over which of these should receive our $350.00 contract for disposing of strays collected by our dog warden. Some towns would have voted no money for fixing dogs-that's not town business, many say. We approved both. It wasn't much money. It won't show up on our tax bills. But it will do some good and ease some suffering, and we considered the question and did the right thing.
Towns all around us have abandoned the town meeting form of government. They have "informational meetings" no one attends, then a secret ballot vote on questions that can't be discussed or amended. Imagine that, my friends, and doubt that our nation may survive its own lethargy, indolence, ignorance, willful stupidity, fear and rot. We will not be brought down by terrorists or foreign powers, but by ourselves. Maine, the state much of the nation looks to for evidence that moderation, reflection, reasonableness and common sense are still good currency in transactions among men, is giving up its town meetings. Three of five towns that abut Alna have done so. The reason is every time the same: people are intimidated by the presence of their neighbors, and dare not speak. Those towns must be populated principally by the timid with a small admixture of the ferocious, and moderated by the inept. But this is what we have willed ourselves to be these late years: afraid. Afraid always, of something, of anything, of the unknown and foreign and of the close by but not precisely like us.
In Alna we still show up in March, grasping our town reports. We change each others' minds by the force of our argument. We embarrass the dull and mean. We elevate and honor our clear thinkers, our generous fellows. Together, in public, in full view of each other and prepared to face the judgment of the world and eternity, we try to do right by ourselves, our children, our dogs and our town.
This is the vision of self determination this country tries to sell to or force upon the rest of the world. I wish we were not so eager to deprive ourselves of it here at home.
Town meeting moderator Cooper served twelve years as first selectman when he was younger, and did a few years service as emergency management director, during which he saw the ugly, bloated, useless side of FEMA. He now contents himself with orchestrating the affairs at the annual and one or more special Alna meetings, pockets his fee, and goes home to tend his trees and pick ticks off his dogs (in season).