The attempts by King George and Parliament to abolish town meetings in 1774 was one of the sparks that led Paul Revere and John Hancock to incite the Revolution that soon followed.
Town meetings still were being conducted in Boston even by the time Maine became a state in 1820. (Boston didn’t become a city until after our separation from Massachusetts.)
The town meeting was also the form of government for Portland until 1832. It’s still the most popular form in Maine, conducted in some 400 of the state’s 489 municipalities.
As in the time of Revere and Hancock, the meeting is still an instrument for lodging protests with more remote forms of governments.
In New Vineyard this year, for example, First Selectwoman Fay Adams pounded away at the state’s curtailment of homestead exemption reimbursement and the threatened cutbacks on revenue sharing. Legislator Russ Black assured the town that he was sponsoring a bill to protect local governments’ share of state tax revenues.
Adams’ skepticism about whether other legislators will go along with Black gave rise to her unusual motion: reduce her own salary and those of her two colleagues on the selectmen’s board from $7,200 to $6,600. Though a fiscally conservative Republican stronghold, townsfolk nevertheless overrode her motion and voted to maintain the salaries at last year’s levels.
Significant voter participation also characterized this year’s New Sharon town meeting, where a sizeable portion of the town’s registered voters turned out.
Attracting the most attention among the 160 on hand was the road commissioner’s race. No shortage of talented people sought the position. It was a three-way contest in which all candidates stepped forward and made informed presentations.
The candidates then responded to questions rained down upon them from all corners of the Cape Cod Hill School gymnasium.
It’s a procedure similar to prime minister’s question time in the Canadian Parliament. Local contractor John Pond emerged victorious after vowing to withhold pay from contractors unless work is completed satisfactorily.
“Either the work is going to be done and done right or they’re not getting paid,” he promised.
Though the Maine town meeting continues to thrive, one element of it for most towns in recent decades has undergone significant surgery. That’s the change in the way town officers are elected.
The traditional system is like New Sharon’s, whereby candidates are nominated from the floor. Then they make a few remarks and respond to questions. Voters then proceed to write down on a blank piece of paper their choice.
If no candidate achieves a majority, which often occurs in a multi-candidate race, then the voting goes into a second and sometimes even a third set of balloting, all in the same meeting.
The new system is substantially the same used by candidates for state office. It’s one where aspirants circulate and file petitions several weeks ahead of the election. They’re then elected by voters casting ballots either absentee or in the privacy of a voting booth. There’s no run-off and the plurality rather than the majority winner is elected.
Though the new system offers the advantage of allowing absentee voting, the public is often shortchanged. That’s because those voting are not guaranteed the kind of communion with the candidates offered by the traditional face-to-face question-and-answer system of the older system. The absence of a run-off procedure also can be a drawback.
Moreover, under the traditional system a credible but losing candidate for one office can be chosen for another at the same meeting. A candidate who misses by a few votes being elected to one of the selectmen’s positions can just 15 minutes or so later seek another town office.
The advantages of the traditional system are such that 11 municipalities in Franklin County, for example, continue to observe it. It’s also one by which John Hancock was elected a selectman in Boston. It’s one with which both Hancock and Paul Revere would, I think, feel right at home.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney who has moderated more than 135 town meetings in Maine including this year’s New Vineyard, New Sharon, Mercer, Industry and Farmington meetings. He can be reached at [email protected]