Mark your calendar: It’s town meeting season

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Voters of West Paris will assemble one week from Saturday for their annual town meeting. They are expected to elect one selectman and a water district trustee, and will consider a $1.1 million budget, which is $11,403 more than what passed last year.

For the 1,812 people living in West Paris, these are important decisions they will make about the next 12 months of administration of town services.

And, thus, another year of Maine’s traditional town meetings will begin.

West Paris holds one of the earliest annual town meetings in Maine, clinging to the 17th-century custom of March meetings. Other area towns that will meet next month include Greene, Minot, Weld, Waterford and Strong. Other towns wait until April, including Poland and Turner, and others meet in May and June. And, what may be one of the latest annual town meetings is in Sumner, which typically meets in August.

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Town meeting day is when voters, once gathered together, become their town’s legislative body and take charge of the municipal budget and decide local policies. In all other matters of governance we elect people to represent us, but at a town meeting we each get to be legislators.

When Maine was still part of Massachusetts, each town held an annual meeting, but as the years marched on some municipalities moved the authority of setting budgets and writing policies to elected representatives. Today, Maine’s 22 cities leave most administrative actions up to elected councils and professional managers, with the occasional referendum.

Still, of the 435 municipalities now existing in Maine, more than 340 maintain the town meeting style of government, some using a town manager to oversee day-to-day operations — like Sabattus, Paris, Farmington and Rumford — and others using a board of selectmen for that — like Otisfield, Weld, Peru and Durham.

In most of those towns, a town meeting day is designated and items on the town warrant are debated and settled in open-meeting style. In some other towns, voters still approve policies and budgets, but cast private votes on a designated day.

And, while a representative “city-style” of government may be more efficient in places where budgets run closer to $20 million than $1 million, there’s really nothing like locals gathering together to discuss and decide how to spend their tax dollars and who will be in charge of spending those dollars. And, in some places, these decisions take all day, so there’s a neighborly break for a good old-fashioned potluck meal.

Nothing like baked beans and a biscuit to energize the populace.

This adherence to town meetings is a New England experience, and it provides real and beneficial human contact between taxpayers and government officials. That is, when people make the effort to participate.

Too often, in towns small and large, these meetings are called, annual reports are published, public meeting space is reserved and then a fraction of eligible voters show up at the designated time. Of course, this fraction sets the funding and policy for the majority.

That is particularly true when it comes to special town meetings, those called to decide issues that develop after annual town meeting day, like in Oxford last year when a special meeting was called to vote on proposed amendments to the town’s zoning ordinance regarding off-street parking and the mill redevelopment district. And like Bethel did last year to approve amendments to the town’s administrative ordinance to allow selectmen to create a new town committee responsible for Bingham Forest oversight.

The proponents and opponents show up, but not many others.

Annual district meetings during which school budgets are voted on are also often split by energized — sometimes pre-decided — factions that set policies for the rest of us.

As irritating as that might be to the minority faction, the fact is that every voter has an opportunity to participate in this process and each are free to do so, or not.

It’s worth considering: A decision not to participate in the process is the same as saying it’s OK for others to make the rules you must follow and to spend money you must pay.

Is that OK?

When this country was founded, the most logical process was to have voters participate in crafting the local rules they wished to live by. And the process has worked so well that local rule endures.

While this country’s dissatisfaction with Congress and with many state governments continues to climb, preserving local rule is more important than ever, as is our ability to maintain some relationship with our government officials. So, find out when your town meeting is and mark your calendar.

Set the rules, rather than be subject to rules set by others.

Be a legislator, if only for a day.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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