“Town Meetings- Time Honored Tradition?

The town meeting form of local government is a phenomenon practiced mostly in New England. It is one of the purist forms of democracy where we practice one man, one vote with the citizens of our towns — allowing a local legislative body, like the board of selectmen,  to interpret the wishes of the citizens in how to spend the taxpayers’ money and to determine the levels of services offered by the town.

As we enter another year of budget meetings, school board meetings and town meetings, we must ask the question: Is this the most efficient form of government or are we just practicing a time-honored tradition?

The history of town meetings dates back to the 1600s  and is most often associated with New England. The Puritans were the first to establish town meetings in New England. Maine used the town meeting originally when it was a district of Massachusetts. The new Americans believed in limited government and kept the power with the citizens to ensure the government could not grow to be overbearing and tyrannical as they viewed the British government had become. During colonial times, according to my research, there was almost 100% attendance at these meetings; they were used as a way to grieve differences, as well as to provide fellowship with their neighbors.

Things are very different today and incrementally over time many people have become complacent and uninterested in how the government is being run, or by whom.  All  they want is to raise their families and be successful. The problem is that along the way they have abdicated their responsibilities to keep the politicians in compliance with the constitution of Maine and the United States. Little by little, citizens have allowed the erosion of their freedoms and the politicians have been willing to take them.

In the town of Sabattus, over the past several years we have seen attendance at town meetings fall from approximately 120 citizens to around 85 last year. That is very poor, considering the town has a population of approximately 5,000. This is a common theme throughout the state with regards to participation town meetings. Just imagine that  .25% (that is a quarter of one percent) of the citizens are making the decisions for the rest of the town on spending and property taxes. Don’t you think we get what we deserve?

The economic times, however, have made more people stand up and pay attention in ways not seen for a very long time. The most recent display of peaceful protest against overspending and “deaf government”  are the “Tea Parties” being held here in Maine and many other locations around the country. We are feeling the repercussions of the national movement at the local level as it relates to the amount of interest shown within our town. Attendance at weekly selectmen’s meetings is up as is the the number of calls received by the town office. More towns are utilizing the technology available to provide more transparency of the workings of government by posting on the Internet the budgets and warrant articles, as well as providing blogs about town matters. You should be able to reach any of the elected officials almost instantaneously through e-mail, Face Book, Twitter or by cell phone.

Though I am not certain about most elected town or state officials, I am certain the town-hall form of government is still the best because it requires you to face the townspeople directly, whether it is twice a month at the selectmen’s meeting or yearly at town meeting. Also, it goes without saying, you face your neighbors everyday about the decisions made at our selectmen’s meetings.

Just one thing to think about as you write the checks paying your property taxes or say to your neighbor “I don’t have the time” –approximately one-quarter of one percent of the townspeople made this decision for you; that’s  .25% of the townspeople making the decisions for 99.75% of the citizens in your town!

Do you still think you are too busy and don’t have the time? Let me know your thoughts.