Ah, the town meeting. Prime rib to the journalistic appetite. Whether big-time city council or backwoods selectmen, trained reporters will lock themselves in a cage and fight over who gets to cover it. That’s how much we love it. That’s how much we love to be on hand when grown-ups get to scrapping like children over lofty matters such as whether the sign welcoming visitors at the edge of town ought to be green or blue.
Men will throw other men through the windows of city hall for matters of less importance. A dainty woman will get to cussing and eye-gouging if a town leader musters the temerity to suggest that the pothole in front of her home isn’t as important as other things.
I’ve seen it happen, brother. I’ve been in the eye of that teeth-gnashing, hair-flying storm. Because I’m a seasoned journalist with an earnest desire to get to the bottom of an issue at the heart of town government. I’m a dedicated newsman who would rather be in council chambers at meeting time than anywhere in the whole, wide world.
Please don’t make me go back. Send me into the sewers to cover meetings among the rats, I don’t care. Anything but the town meeting.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. It’s just that one hour among highfalutin city officials with their mill rates and other fancy talk is enough to make me pull my hair out. Two hours within the Chamber of Self-Importance and I want to pull YOUR hair out. And your little dog's, too.
But council meetings never last two hours. Even if they have just one item on the agenda and it’s an item on which everyone agrees (“Tonight’s vote on whether to allow Big Louie’s Porn Emporium to move in next to the elementary school”), all city and town meetings are required, by law, to grind on twice as long as they need to.
There’s the public input portion of a meeting, for starters. This is the time allotted for you, me and others who care to deliver whiny, impassioned speeches on why the welcome sign ought to be green instead of blue.
This is where old Hank gets up (town charter demands that all meetings have at least one Hank in attendance and he has to be old) and strides to the front of the room with a crumpled piece of paper clutched in fingers gone white with emotion. Hank has been fuming over this issue for a week. He’s watched “A Few Good Men” over and over and figures he’s three times as angry as the Jack Nicholson character.
Hank will devour a solid half-hour of the meeting, reading from his notes before finally going off script altogether. He’s just that peed off. A good percentage of Hank's time is spent yelling: “Let me finish! Sir! You have to let me finish! I’m a taxpayer!” every time a councilor or selectman tries to interrupt.
There is also some guy, usually younger, who is convinced that he did such stellar research on the topic, by Googling its butt off the night before, he’s going to wow everyone. The whole issue is going to come to a screeching halt because of something he found on Wikipedia. He is absolutely certain of it. Why, the others might hoist him up and carry him home on their shoulders, his work is so heroic.
There is also a woman, an Agnes or a Gloria, who says nothing at all but nods enthusiastically at everything Hank and the others say. Without the affirmation of those nods, Hank is nothing. Nothing!
A solid hour is required for applause, which the civic-minded public will do every 30 seconds at some meetings. The applause is reserved for those moments when someone has made a particularly solid point that either questions or embarrasses a councilor or the board as a whole. Because the public hates their elected representatives with all of their hearts. Can’t stand them. Wants them stripped naked and lashed to a sign at the edge of the city (whether a blue sign or a green one has yet to be decided) for all to see and/or throw things at.
And this is where the meeting becomes tricky and unpleasant for me as a sort of reporter. I so enjoy the public input session that I tend to miss other things that are happening, like councilors uttering actual information. They’re just so boring. I would much rather watch Agnes or Gloria nodding like a bobblehead than listen to some drone babbling on with facts and figures and answers to questions.
Blah, blah, blah. Dollars, contract bids, subsection this and town charter that. I should be writing this stuff down, but I’m not. I’m furiously scribbling in my notebook, trying to capture every word screeched by a man whose face has gone an absolutely amazing shade of red. I want to be able to repeat exactly what this fellow said in the moments before his head blew clean off his neck.
The average town meeting runs as long as the gestation period of a spoon-billed platypus, sometimes longer. The meeting will actually end several times. The Grand Poobah, or whatever he is called, will go to bang his gavel and there is hope of escape. But then, somebody somewhere has one more thing to say. Sometimes it’s John Q. Public. Sometimes it’s a member of the board who knows that when the meeting is adjourned, he has to go home to whatever god-awful meal his wife has cooked. He’d rather stay here all night. Forever, if he can manage it.
But the meeting will eventually end and when I’m asked about it, it becomes clear how terrible I am at municipal reporting. I’ll be able to relate what Hank was wearing, how many people spit or swore while addressing the council and exactly how many times Agnes or Gloria nodded with such zeal that her falsies slipped out of her mouth. I won’t be able to tell you a thing about how much money is being spent on the sign, who will do the work or what color it will be.
It’s one of my few failings, and I admit it openly. It’s the clash of egos and the battle of wills that excites me, not the bottom line. These are the same emotions that have been flying around since pilgrims set up the first colonies and got to arguing over whether the delicious, eared vegetable should be called corn or maze. You better believe there was a Hank among them, and a red-faced man about to expire.
There was probably a confused young reporter there, too, taking notes on all the wrong things with a quill pen. He spent far too much time watching Agnes or Gloria, for starters. It’s evident he had a crush on her.
Can you blame him? She really is a handsome woman.
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer who is rarely allowed to cover municipal meetings. You can comment on his rant at firstname.lastname@example.org.