This reflection inspires attendance at Town Meetings by remembering the history that created the reunions as a form of self-governance that remains to this day. Town Meetings are a meaningful way to participate and cooperate with neighbors and community members on issues that impact everyone. Toward the end of the article, Woodfin points out that sometimes individuals celebrate victory after a vote and other lament, but everyone continues to participate because it is their opportunity to voice their opinion on local issues. Another interesting opportunity to participate in areas where Town Meetings are not common practice or simply not established would be school board meetings and and public meetings regarding land use. When we are all able to find a forum where we can participate within our own communities, we will truly be making a real difference.
(Photo: The Old Town House, built in 1727, is often referred to as "Marblehead's Cradle of Liberty" for the many pre-revolutionary war meetings held there. It is one of the oldest town halls in America that has been in continuous use.)
In the documentary "An Unreasonable Man" about Ralph Nader, the presidential candidate reflects upon his own experiences in Town Meetings and recalls his father provoking him to come up with answers to the community's problems. These experiences and thought processes create a sense of civic responsibility that safeguards a sense of community and common well-being. Viewing the above-mentioned documentary is highly recommended for those hoping to change the world little by little, even when the battle is daunting and seemingly impossible. -Editor
By William Woodfin
Wed Apr 30, 2008, 10:01 PM EDT
Marblehead - The calendar’s approach to May got me to thinking about our chosen form of government here in Marblehead: open, participative town meeting. Although I couldn’t find hard statistics on those of the Commonwealth’s 351 cities and towns that continue to practice the New England tradition of open town meeting, I feel secure in opining that this form of government is practiced by increasingly fewer communities as we approach the second decade of the 21st century.
The practice of the open-town-meeting form of government is an old one, its genesis coming in early 17th-century New England. Townspeople who were property owners gathered in meeting houses (the site of Marblehead’s original one was on Old Burial Hill) to make communal decisions related to payment for local services such as the constabulary and public schools, the appointment of local leaders, the defense of the community from physical attack and epidemic, and rules about topics as diverse as livestock grazing, fowling, the keeping of swine and the funding for the “poorhouse.”
Marblehead’s historic town’s records (the earliest of which are written by quill and ink in the glorious, flourished handwriting of the earliest town clerks) tell us that Marblehead has been conducting an annual open town meeting since 1629 or thereabouts — a prolonged record of almost 380 years of participative democracy in which we should take pride.
Like many things in small New England towns, town meeting is an “acquired taste,” which was often ingrained in childhood by parents who would retell over the supper table funny and often bawdy actions and words offered by Marbleheaders as part of this institution.
My earliest memories of Town Meeting come from my father Ben, who related his experiences as a child observing town meeting during the early 1930s. At that time, Marblehead’s town meeting was conducted in the upper auditorium of Abbot Hall, with hard wooden chairs and deacon benches arrayed on the main floor and the upper gallery reserved for observers and children alike to watch the verbal sparring. In his memory, these meetings were not for the “faint of heart,” as swearing during comments was commonplace, the grumbles of dissent with statements made by others from the floor was often loud and derisive, and the town generally betrayed her old Yankee roots that the opinions of “outsiders” and the Commonwealth shouldn’t have a hell of a lot to do with governing the actions of Marbleheaders and their beloved home town. According to my dad, the language of Marbleheaders at town meeting would often “peel the paint.” These meetings were as much about R-rated verbal barbs as effective governance, where “expletive deleted” words were used liberally. “What the hell do the laws of the Commonwealth have to do with Marblehead?” was the prevailing mantra of Marbleheaders. A liberal dose of “grog” before Town Meeting often was a common way to prepare for public speaking.
In my dad’s memory, Town Meeting was almost a hybrid of “a night at the Improv” (including swears) with Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Interestingly, in his experience (as well as my own), special derision was often reserved for elected officials, who, although they may have been elected annually by wide margins, were often derided by those who elected them as either “out of touch,” stupid or “from the shallow end of the gene pool.”
My first direct memory of Town Meeting was as a boy of about 13 when my father asked me to accompany him to observe the Town Meeting about the building of a new high school (around 1969). By this time, Town Meeting had been moved to the “real” high school auditorium (now the PAC at the Marblehead Veterans Middle School), where guests and kids needed to get a “ticket” from Town Clerk Clarence “Winker” Chapman and then be escorted by a police officer to sit on the stage to watch the debate.
Of course, when it comes to spending money, Marbleheaders have never been “blushing violets,” and the debate that night was long and contentious ultimately ending up with a close defeat of the proposed new high school. Incidentally, it would take almost 30 years before another new high school was proposed and eventually approved by Marblehead’s voters at the dawn of the 21st century — that is called institutional memory!
Over my years of attendance, I can remember a number of entertaining incidents, including Anthony “Tony” Fiore being chased around the auditorium by Marblehead’s finest (Harry Christensen the Senior, Herm Nickerson, Red Howe, et al) because he wouldn’t end his comments about dump regulations at the behest of the moderator; David Stern’s classic response to a voter’s question about the meaning of a zoning amendment about irregularly shaped lots (what this means is that “pork-chop lots are not kosher,” he said), and dissension about how a proposed granite breakwater across the harbor would ruin the view off “the Fort” and that which God didn’t put there should not be placed by man, regardless of damaged boats.
In the experience of my earliest years of attendance prior to 1980, Town Meeting was branded by the involvement of many elected and appointed officials who were always present and speaking (Jim Skinner, Tommy Jordan, Peter Martin, Norris Harris, Arnold Alexander, Donald Peach, Hill Rockett, Bill Conly, Joyce Maffei, Joe Whipple, Moderator Steve Howe, FinCom Chairman Bill Sleigh) along with regular attendees with a laudable sense of “citizenship” (talented and hesitant public speakers alike) who were accorded a modicum of respect and always had their say.
Over the past several years, I have heard various naysayers offer that open town meeting is archaic: unworkable in the complex regulatory environment that is Massachusetts, too much of a “pain” to attend and not truly representative because of attendance numbers typically in the 400-700 range (of 12,000-plus registered voters), the electorate is uninformed and disinterested or that the participatory town meeting is subject to “special interests” that show up, vote exclusively for their articles and leave.
To all that I say, “To hell I pitch it!” and “Bunk!” Sure, Town Meeting can and always has been a place that can be “packed,” and I also get upset when some people get up after their articles and walk out en masse (Katie bar the doors), but I also think of the times when I have walked up the aisle to the restroom (note: not enough PAC WCs; more next time) and seen and nodded to the same faces in the same seats, year after year, no matter the weather, the content of the warrant or the advancing years of age.
I also think of the way that a particularly effective argument, presentation or, yes, emotional genuflection to our town and her history has changed the course of the town’s business over the years: the 90-year-old lady (whose name escapes me) and former teacher who got up and gave the most eloquent speech and swayed an entire auditorium to her way of thinking and got a standing ovation to boot; the fact that if one has the “guts,” you can get up and say your piece whether popular or not and feel like your point of view has been voiced; that one person’s “special interest” is another’s democracy in situ; and, yes, that direct democracy still has a place in this increasingly complacent and jaundiced nation, where lobbyists wander the halls of Congress and the Legislature with impunity and checkbook in hand, elected officials often forget that they are supposed to be representatives of those in their district that elected them and that fundraising, media exposure, polls and slickness often define electability on a national scale.
To those who take the view that open town meeting is archaic, I ask, “Maybe, but what is better?” And, “Is there no place where responsible participatory citizenship should trump the siren call of new, streamlined governance?” I say, “Huzzah!” to Marblehead’s open town meeting and the scores of involved citizens that have historically made it work, and may God bless it and keep it for future generations.
It is with some sorrow and trepidation that I look back on the past year or so and see the score of Town Meeting “good citizens” that have passed: Virginia Gamage, Pat Warnock, Milt Bloom, Jim Hourihan, Paul Lausier, Lib McKinnon, Bud Orne and, yes, at the risk of sounding self-serving, my dad Ben and countless others who never said a word but, for decades and without fail, have shown up, taken their regular seats, voiced their opinions, rustled their FinCom reports, shifted their cheeks, raised their hands in assent or opposition and celebrated or grumbled on the outcome of votes but have always kept on attending. Among the named individuals there are few common threads of policy, spending or governance, but all had an abiding belief in town meeting and the participatory democracy that they cherished. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost, but they ALWAYS attended and voiced what they thought was right for the town they loved. Not unlike Rockwell’s depiction of “freedom of speech” from his series of paintings entitled the “four freedoms” created at the onset of World War II, Marblehead’s open town meeting IS democracy and something we should never sacrifice to expediency or complacency.
Come May 5, 2008, I too would love to sit home and watch the finals of “American Idle” (oops, sorry, “Idol”), some other top-10 program or Paris’/LiLo’s/Britney’s latest calamity, but like my father before me, I will do my best to be at the PAC and hope that you also consider attending because you can become a legend of Marblehead’s open town meeting simply by attending.
Until next time, Marblehead forever, God bless this dear old town and don’t give up the ship….
Bill Woodfin is a selectman and Marbleheader who is in the process of writing a book and photographic retrospective entitled: “Marblehead: More Than Just a Place.”