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Down the Road

Town meeting time
By Milton M. Gross
Mar 21, 2014 - 8:17:22 AM

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It is no accident that the annual town meeting is planned for March in most towns. After a long, snowy winter, the generally isolated residents of Maine's communities in the past used the town meeting as a social time.

Today, it's still usually in the spring -- in time to meet education budgets, which come together later. But I suspect that old after-a-long-snowy-winter reason is still buried somewhere in the "why" it's held in spring.

At the town meeting, major items of business that will affect the town for the foreseeable future are considered. Selectmen in towns are only authorized to conduct fairly minor business during their weekly, semi-weekly or monthly selectmen's meetings. For major business, especially matters that involve spending money, townspeoples' authorization is required.

But what I remember most about the many town meetings I've attended are the eats. Generally, snacks and coffee are available, usually by some town organization such as Boy or Girl Scouts or a women's organization. They use the snacks as a fundraiser. Usually the women of the town provide a noon meal, as many town meetings last all day.

In the fictitious town meeting that follows, the moderator runs the meeting. He is dressed in his cleanest khakis (wouldn't wear your everyday clothes to town meeting) and a blue button down shirt. The shirt, by reason of too much breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the past number of years, kind of overhangs the belt. Everyone knows the moderator, who has been doing that annual task for many years.

I don't recall any women moderators, although that is certainly possible.

He tries to shush the loud babble of men and women, who perhaps haven't seen each other for awhile. And eventually they quiet down enough for him to begin the meeting. The three or more selectmen are seated behind a table alongside the monitor, who is standing at a podium.

Munching of donuts and sipping of coffee continues until that fuel is gone.

While the town-meeting goers are taking care of the first few items on the agenda, we'll take a look at the history of town meetings:

"Local government and the town meeting in New England traces its origins to 1620 and the Mayflower Compact written and agreed to by the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony. By 1652 the Colony asserted its authority over that part of Maine known then and now as York(shire) County. By having local townsmen sign a statement accepting that authority, the tradition of popular participation in town affairs was begun.

"Towns and cities are the two types of municipal government in Maine. Plantations are a special non-municipal, town-like local government in less populated areas. Counties, also a product of the colonial era, perform limited functions for their constituent municipalities. Special districts for schools, water and sewer administration, planning and other purposes overlap municipalities and counties.

"In 1865 the Maine Legislature enacted an early version of today's "right-to-know" law. Chapter 305 of that year required the selectmen, treasurer, and anyone else involved in a town's finances to "make detailed written or printed reports of all their financial transactions" before the annual town meeting. Reports were to be "open during the usual hours of business to the inspection of any legal voter. . . ." It was a tough law, punishable by a fine of $50 for each refusal to allow access or create the reports -- a substantial sum in 1865.

"In 1939, when the law was amended to require creation of copies and inspections three days before the annual meeting, the $50 fine was still in effect and still a severe penalty during the Great Depression of the period.

"Throughout New England, "Town Meetings" became the standard instrument of local government with authority exercised through, usually three, selectmen. In one sense, it was a form of pure democracy, but even so it did not allow the participation of women or slaves, and in some cases property ownership or church attendance was required for voting." (From a website; didn't notice its name)

So our town meeting was created, and our fictitious one continues:

The easy items, the ones agreeable to most participants, are passed or turned down, usually by a hand vote. A ballot, usually scraps of paper that participants drop into a box after they vote on it, is generally for more controversial items.

In our fictitious town meeting, a man disagrees with others and shouts as he stands. The moderator tolerates this for awhile but finally uses the gavel to quiet the shouter. Opinions continue and there is a vote.

By this time, the easy items are handled, and some people have begun to leave the meeting.

The close of the meeting is fast, as the moderator gavels the end.

This all may sound very serious, but humor happens often, a joke, a comment....an argument interrupts -- and sometimes a fight.

At one town meeting I attended, two groups of fishermen were disagreeing on whether the town should build a new dock for poorer fishermen or younger ones. Older fishermen didn't want to spend the money, as they already had their own docks.

I, the humble reporter, was sitting at a table at the front about in the center of the room. One group of fishermen rose and rushed at the others, most of whom were on the other side of the room. As the crowd rushed toward me, I contemplated -- no, didn't have time for that big a word, "thought" -- I might dive under the table.

But, right in the nick of time (what does "nick of time" mean anyhow), a Department of Marine Resources Officer -- known lovingly on Maine's coast as a clam cop -- stood up, pulled his pistol from his holster, and banged its butt on the table!

And the crowds of lobstermen rushing each other stopped. Stopped cold in their high rubber fisherman's boots!

The meeting continued and eventually ended. I don't recall the details except that I and my laptop were both safe and alive.

The fictitious town meeting ends with one final gavel pounding by the moderator. I get up, along with the rest of the crowd.

People hurry out of the old building, headed for home.

Enough socializing for one spring. There's cows at home, waiting to be milked. Or, for the non-farmers in the crowd, there's that quick stop at Hannaford's or Walmart.


Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at lesstraveledway@roadrunner.com.

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2013


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