When Readfield abolished its town meeting this year, I mourned for my friends there. The chance to get together once a year, after a long winter, and debate and decide the local issues of the day, is a rare privilege and should not be given up for convenience or any other reason.
There is simply no way that voters will be better informed by taking all issues to the ballot box. It’s at town meeting where we get to debate the issues, grill town officials and make collective judgments in an informed environment.
I have loved town meeting since I was a kid attending them in Winthrop’s packed gymnasium, fascinated by the debates and decisions. When Winthrop ended town meeting in the 1970s, I was elected to its first town council, serving five years before Linda and I decided Winthrop had gotten too big and moved to Mount Vernon, where town meeting was just one of many things that attracted us to this wonderful small town. Twice we have defeated attempts to hire a town manager, content with letting our selectmen run things with our annual guidance.
It was a mistake to move town meetings to June, to accommodate school budget schedules, because the spring meetings were better attended. Even I have trouble getting to town meeting in June. I especially love the spring town meetings that convene in the morning, adjourn for a pot luck lunch, and then reconvene in the afternoon. That’s fun.
Without doubt, attendance at most town meetings has dwindled, but that is no reason to abolish them. Those who care about this institution, along with town budgets and issues, continue to turn out faithfully. They should not be denied this opportunity.
Those towns that retained spring town meetings have been in the news lately. Freedom voters adopted an ordinance governing food, empowering their local farmers with this measure that gives residents the right to produce, process, sell, buy and consume local foods, without regard to state and federal laws. Good for them.
Voters at town meetings often are generous in their support of good causes. In Freedom, they donated $500 to the Waldo County Woodshed, which provides low-cost or free firewood to needy families. They also donated to the Old Cemetery Restoration Fund and the local historical society. I like their priorities.
In New Sharon, voters upset the apple cart with the defeat of a long-time selectman, prompting one of the other selectmen to threaten to resign. Voters also cut selectmen’s pay from $7,000 to $5,000 per year, with the intent of hiring a professional assessor instead of relying on selectmen to do that job.
As I was writing this column, Belgrade voters were getting excited about their town meeting, where they would consider moving the local food pantry and building a new town office. (They did.) Voters also approved a $134,000 budget item to support recreational programs at the Center for All Seasons, and a new ordinance governing mass gatherings, in response to a three-day festival that brings Philadelphia bands and fans to town.
At the same time, Pittston voters gathered for their annual town meeting. The biggest budget buster there was an increase in funds for repairs to the town’s sand and salt shed, which they approved. They also were going to debate whether to continue to pay Richmond to accept bulky waste items from Pittston residents (also approved). Isn’t this just the cooperation amongst municipalities that state officials say we need?
In the mid-1980s, I served as a Mount Vernon selectman. We had a ritual at each meeting, when one selectman would open the mail and hand it to the chairman, who, if it came from the state or federal government, would hand it to me to drop into the wastebasket. I guess if selectmen did that today, they’d be arrested.
Much of what we do at the local level these days is directed and dictated by state and federal officials, agencies and laws. Yet local government is still the most efficient, and for the governor to suggest otherwise is terribly wrong. In the towns where the people rule, we make the best decisions. And when government is this close to us, and accountable to us, it’s tough for graft and corruption to take root.
Town meeting is a very conservative concept, initiated to defeat the centralization of power. And when we are the government, we don’t fear the government. That may be the most valuable benefit of town meetings.