The Town Meeting: The attempt by King George and Parliament to abolish it in 1774 was one of the sparks that led Paul Revere and John Hancock to incite the Revolution which soon followed.
The Revolution gave rise to its revival. Town meetings were still 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 instrumentality of lodging protests with more remote forms of governments. In New Vineyard this year, for example, First Selectman Fay Adams pounded away at the state’s curtailment of homestead exemption reimbursement and the threatened cut backs 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’s skepticism over whether other legislators will go along with Black gave rise to an unusual motion by her this year: reduce the salaries for the three-person selectmen’s board from $7,200 to $6,600. Though a fiscally conservative Republican stronghold, the town nevertheless overrode her motion and voted to maintain the salaries at last year’s levels.
At nearly the same time as New Vineyard citizens were flexing their democratic muscles so too was the Kennebec County town of Vienna, some 25-miles to the south. Over 61-percent or some 280 of its registered voters turned out to vote on a variety of local contests including road commissioner, town clerk and tax collector. This is a percentage similar to that achieved a year ago. These are unusually high turnouts for local elections any where in Maine. The fact that Vienna is near the top in such civic attributes should come as no surprise to those familiar with its culture. The local Grange there, for example, is the largest of any in the state, this in a community with a total population that registered a mere 570 in the 2010 census. It’s obviously a town never visited by Robert Putnam when he penned his "Bowling Alone," a book which ridiculed the unsocial tendencies of modern American culture.
One of its more memorable leaders a few years ago was Coleman Von Graff. Though a broken-English speaking native of the Vienna region of Austria, he was a widely acclaimed member of the Vienna, Maine Board of Selectmen in the 1970s and 1980s. As with New Vineyard’s Fay Adams, Von Graff harbored a resentment of centralized government, even going so far as to lead the town’s successful lawsuit against the state for over valuing property in the community. (An over valuation by the state results in a reduction of state payments for municipal and school district subsidies.)
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 to the 160 on hand was the road commissioner’s race. There was no shortage of talented people seeking 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 satisfactorily completed.
“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 who then 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 runoff 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 runoff procedure can also be a drawback.
Moreover, under the traditional system a credible but losing candidate for one office can then 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 be a candidate for another town office. The candidate that voters may not want for first selectman may well be one that voters choose to install for second selectman or some other position.
The advantages of the traditional system are such that eleven 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 over 135 town meetings in Maine including this year's New Vineyard, New
Sharon, Mercer, and Industry meetings.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.