Where neighbors speak their minds Town meetings: A thousand New England villages practice democracy in a ritual as old as America's first English settlements.

March 13, 1998|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HENNIKER, N.H. -- Trade in the highway department's 19-year-old grader for a new model? Yes. Set aside funds to attract a federal grant for a bike path? A close vote, but OK. Spend more than $1 million to restore the rusty, old one-lane Patterson Hill Bridge? Not this year.

In an age of computers and cable television, the people of Henniker -- like people in villages all over New England -- assembled this week for a ritual as old as America's first English settlements: the town meeting.

Democracy can't get any more direct than this.

For four hours on a bone-chillingly cold night, about 250 Henniker citizens sat in the school cafetorium (which is the school cafeteria when it's not the school auditorium) and thrashed out how they want their government to work for the next year.

"Some critics say it's outmoded, not fit for the 20th century," said Joseph Zimmerman, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Albany, who studies town meetings. "Those criticisms are usually written by people who are not natives of New England."

"It's democracy in action," said Selectman Thea Braiterman, a retired economics professor who, with her husband, Marvin, moved to Henniker from Baltimore in 1973.

"I think the town meeting is one of the glories of New England."

At the Andover, N.H., town meeting, John Keyser agreed. He was one of more than 200 people who trooped to the local school this week, as snow-covered fields glowed under a bright moon, to talk government.

"I express my constitutional rights," said Keyser, 48, a truck mechanic in blue coveralls, as he took a break from the meeting to stand in a snow shower and have a smoke. "Everybody in there has got the same rights I do. This is America. Freedom of speech. The Constitution."

Inside, he had taken the microphone to wonder how certain roads had made it to next year's repair list when his hadn't.

"I live on a dirt road," he said. "Are my tax dollars different from theirs?" The proposed $61,000 expenditure for repaving was defeated.

Another man was tired of hearing some residents' unrealistic expectations.

"This is the Granite State," he said, to a smattering of applause and a low muttering of approvals. "You're going to have potholes. Live with it."

"This is what government's all about," Keyser said.

This is how the Athenians ran their city-state in the 5th century B.C., with gatherings in the marketplace. They had no congress, no congressional committees, no congressional subcommittees. They were their own government.

The Puritans held America's first town meeting in 1629, Zimmerman said. It served as Boston's form of government until 1822, when its population of 40,000 made the system impractical.

New England tradition

Today, the town meeting, too unwieldy for large towns and cities, exists almost exclusively in New England villages. It is kept alive by political tradition and a culture that recoils from the thought of too much government.

Here, government decisions are in the hands of whoever chooses to show up on the announced night once a year.

"In America, we do not believe that government is a special skill," said Isaac Kramnick, a professor of government at Cornell University. "You don't have to be rich or intellectual. It's something anyone can do. A single mother has the same one vote as the president of the factory.

"The town meeting," Kramnick said, "is an expression of our faith in the common person."

'Spectacles of turbulence'

Some Founding Fathers were wary of a system in which the majority always rules, with no protection for the rights of the minority.

"Such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention," James Madison wrote in the 1780s in The Federalist Papers, a series of essays calling for ratification of the Constitution. A representative government, he argued, was preferable.

But in 1,209 New England towns -- 189 of them in New Hampshire -- the town meeting remains.

Most of them are held here in a two-week, late-winter span -- "mud season," when the frozen ground gives way to mire so powerful it can trap a car and when frost heaves up and breaks through pavement.

It's not unusual to hear speakers voice their suspicion of the remote federal government, which spins along and spends money without listening to the people.

"What I like about town meetings," Braiterman said, "is how the common sense of people comes through.

In Bow, N.H., voters decided to buy 761 acres of open space to protect them from development. In Sutton, the citizens said they'd buy the police chief a $29,000 Crown Victoria instead of the $34,000 four-wheel-drive vehicle that a selectman thought would be safer in the winter. In Amherst, they turned down a proposal to abolish kindergarten.

A sense of community

The system is plodding and sometimes marked by argument. But the people who attend say the meetings foster a sense of community, of neighbors working together for the common good.

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