I've said this before. I've written it here, in this space, more than once. And been paid for saying it, as I expect I shall be paid for this iteration, this variation, this expression of a fact, a realization, a significant truth that I now see is more profound and more necessary that I put it before you than ever it has been. The Maine town meeting is the last vestige of open, honest, decent, largely unobstructed and unencumbered democracy still allowed in the United States of America.
I should probably include at least the majority of New Hampshire and Vermont towns, too, although I have no direct experience with how they do it. I'm suspicious of the Southern New England variants, as I doubt and mistrust most persons and ideas from those states, including the tourists who lash all manner of luggage and recreational equipment to their vehicles and obstruct my free movement during our few warm months, the wealthy retirees who come here from there to live in ridiculous "Planned Unit Developments" and overpriced homes and compounds near the water, and the shopping center developers and heroin importers who poison our susceptible residents.
But could there be a more clear, simple, open way for men and women to conduct their public affairs than by making of every one of them a legislator? That is what town meeting does. But not for long; there is no possibility of a career. Adopt the town manager or mayor and town council model and careerism and partisanship and continuing alliances follow. But the town meeting operates closer to a draft system-you are chosen; you serve; you are dismissed.
Seven days before a meeting the selectmen post a warrant. This document describes the questions the legislative body will consider. If it is not on the warrant it doesn't exist. One can propose amendments to modify the degree or the size or (sometimes) the expense of a proposal, but only within a fairly narrow range. Depart too boldly from the proposal as it is written and the moderator disallows the motion. Convince your selectmen to bring your idea to another meeting, or force the issue by petition.
The specificity and limitation of the warrant ensure that anyone who decides to not attend the meeting will not be surprised later to learn that great or terrible things were done in his absence; only business specified may be entertained. Years ago common practice allowed a final article: To conduct such other business as may legally come before the meeting. But, as the law very specifically requires, there is no such thing as any legal business not expressly laid out, so the article is moot. If you don't mind everything on the warrant passing or failing, stay home with a clear conscience and happy heart. There will be no secret deals done.
The selectmen, the administrative body of the town, are reduced to minor players. They vote; they may be called upon to explain or to justify; they may be allowed to argue or reason, to beg or cajole, but they do not speak without the moderator's approval and they have no special authority by virtue of office.
Non-residents may not speak without the consent of the meeting. This includes the superintendent of schools, who, despite his hundred grand salary and fine suit and regal bearing, must feel a little cheap and awkward and dirty-he is an outsider, a mere hireling.
Property confers no privilege, a fact that astonishes some camp owners and second-home types who might happen to be in town (especially during the afore-mentioned warm season). "My family has owned property and paid taxes in this own since Nineteen fifty-two!" Well, that's just fine. And as long as you continue to pay those taxes you may keep your property; otherwise our treasurer will seize it through the elegant tax lien process (which we reauthorize each year at our annual meeting) and we will keep it or sell it as the voters decide. But you will not speak unless we say so and you will not ever vote. Residency, not ownership is the requirement for the franchise.
This means a Trask or a Seigars, the best or the worst of them, the successful and the unemployed, the propertied and the renter and the thirty-year-old boy still living in his childhood bedroom may vote, while the millionaire shorefront vacation home owner may not. And I can tell you, that just makes all us residents feel real good.
You need not read well or speak well or dress well. If you live in this town the law assumes you have an interest in what is done to for and by you, and you may address your neighbors and try to influence them and your vote carries the same weight as theirs, although of course not all arguments are created equal. And, because of that, some articles will pass or fail.
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If enough choices are made of which you remain unsatisfied, or having been decided, are carried out by the selectmen or other town officials inadequately, poorly or incorrectly, any resident has the option of running for an office in the administrative branch. And a very good chance of getting elected. This is not so at any other level of government, where you will be expected to join a party and raise and spend money, both of which unavoidably corrupt the candidate and his term in office.
These are the municipal positions I have held during my time in Alna thus far, in order: selectman (twelve years), emergency management director (once), treasurer (my year of service ending next Saturday), and moderator (for a decade or so and, voters assenting, again next weekend).Of these, only the office of moderator carries much real power. Selectmen are administrators only. The treasurer can only write such checks as the selectmen specifically direct, and they in turn may only spend what the voters authorized. You see how it works: a whole year's worth of apparently free acts by perhaps a dozen persons, carried out in several locations at any hour of the day or night, often involving great sums of money or heavy equipment, depends upon and must follow precisely the requirements of a few score ordinary citizens called away from their private lives for a few hours one day in March each year.
I say the moderator has power. He does. He controls the debate, its tempo and its tone. He or she points to you or calls your name and you may speak; the gavel is dropped and you are done. The moderator rules whether a motion is valid, an amendment allowed. Affront the moderator by your loud or uncooperative behavior and expect to be removed from the meeting. But, if the moderator misbehaves the voters can overrule him. He serves only so long as he has the support of the governed. Now, you just don't see that down in Washington, D.C., do you?
I won't tell you town meetings don't sometimes make bad decisions. Or cheap and petty ones. But usually the effects that follow are obvious and fairly closely related to that decision in both time and space. Elect a stupid selectman or one with a too-personal view of who should benefit from municipal authority, and he will plague you for a year beginning the minute the clerk reads the vote tally. Choose not to fund the road account and get ready for potholes, plugged culverts and pavement collapse.
Then, having seen directly and come to terms with what your votes did, you may rectify the situation, change direction, fund the account, withdraw or extend the authority at the next annual meeting or at a special meeting called (with seven days' notice) by the selectmen or by a small number of citizens. There will be no eight years of lies and expense and ruin while Congress plays its silly games and goes about its fundraising. In rural New England as nowhere else, the legislature is truly and only We the People.
And we do it in March. This year we elect on the twentieth and take up articles three through forty-one on Saturday the twenty-first. Last weekend everyone received an annual report which included a copy of the warrant and details concerning every dollar received and spent in the last year. Our books closed the thirty-first of January and here we will have the whole of it in our hands not two months later, together with some suggestions toward our future course and several photographs of the road commissioner, the narrow-gauge railroad and other views about town.
I have said this before, too: it is a lost and foolish town that will abandon March meeting for no better reason than to climb on board some "higher" entity's fiscal year, as so many Maine communities have done, thereby either holding their meeting in March with the year not yet over or worse, in June, a time fit for tourists but not for deliberation and consideration and argument and action.
We are all but dead come March, and a few of us truly are dead; Page four of the Annual Report Of The Municipal Officers Of The Town Of Alna, Maine, 2008-2009 lists the six who will not join us Saturday. Those of us who have survived the long winter, its hardship and expense and uncertainty, deserve the duty and the delight that history and custom and resistance to unnecessary and unwarranted and undesirable change have afforded us. We have earned our March meeting and we will preserve it as it preserves and protects and promotes the best in our spirits.
Persons wishing to contact Moderator Cooper are invited to the Alna Firehouse Saturday, from ten o'clock in the a.m. until business is concluded and the major players adjourn to a place certain for gin. Otherwise, send him your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org, where he may be found in his non-municipal capacity as general layabout, idea man and companion to several poorly-regulated dogs.