"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson


We as Americans all remember being taught when we were young about our nation's founders, the patriots who stood up to the tyranny of the crown of England, the drafters of the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, the documents that became the framework for a system of governance that they believed would maintain a balance of power within a truly representative government, that would preserve the basic rights and liberties of the people, let their voice be heard, and provide to them a government, as Lincoln later put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."

Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?

Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.

How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.

In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…



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Sunday, June 22, 2008


This column from a Lexington, MA paper gives an overview and history of the town meeting form of direct democracy in Lexington. The practice is widespead throughout New England and has it's origins in colonial times- Editor

Scene and Herd: Town Meeting has a long, involved history

By Mary Lou Touart/Columnist
Thu Mar 20, 2008, 06:27 AM EDT

Lexington -

Many residents of Lexington may still not know all there is to know about the Town Meeting form of government. So, since the annual March session began yesterday, perhaps it might be time to talk of the history of this ancient tradition.

A person has a sense of awe and history if elected to Town Meeting in a community such as Lexington. You become one of 189 members exercising direct democracy in action. There are nine precincts in town and you are one of 21 representatives from your precinct. The number of elected representatives is determined by each town.

Lexington was settled in 1642. The first Town Meeting was held in 1692, as soon as there were enough land-owning men, the only villagers who were eligible to vote. This was when the village was still called Cambridge Farms. It became the incorporated village of Lexington in 1713, and six days later held it first Town Meeting as Lexington.

Like those in other small- to medium-sized towns all over New England, Town Meetings were instituted early on and became a tradition that continues to the present day. Depending on the size and wishes of each town, some have open forums like neighboring Weston and Concord that include all registered voters at their meetings. Others have a representative form like Lexington that was voted into existence in 1929, and convened in 1930. Lexington now has a population of about 31,000 people.

Town Meeting is the legislative body of the town. It has sole authority to appropriate funds for the operating budget and capital projects. It can vote on municipal budget line items and adopt, amend, or repeal bylaws, including all those related to zoning. Like any good legislative body, it holds the purse strings. And there is always lively discussion.

With the exception of the town moderator who is elected every year, all other officers are elected to three-year terms. These include the Board of Selectmen, School Committee, Planning Board, and Lexington Housing Authority. None has an acknowledged political association. The town manager is appointed by the Board of Selectmen.

The town moderator, selectmen, or town manager appoint major town committees and officers for three-year terms. These include the Appropriation, Capital Expenditures, Permanent Building, Recreation, and Lexington 2020 Vision Committees, Historical, Conservation and Historic Districts Commissions, Personnel Advisory Board, Board of Registrars, Board of Health, Board of Appeals, and the town clerk. All, including lesser committees, have their own specific purposes.

When women acquired the right to vote in 1920, they began to take an interest in their town government. They successfully ran for Town Meeting in 1930 and have now become members and chairmen of major committees. There are 83 women of the 189 Town Meeting members and there are 106 men. Three of the nine at-large members are women. A woman presently serves as chairman of the Board of Selectmen and the woman town moderator has held that office for 21 years.

One of the unique aspects of Lexington’s Town Meeting is its Town Meeting Members Association, or TMMA. Started in the 1930s, the unofficial TMMA continues to thrive and is unusual among towns in the state. Each precinct has three representatives that make up the TMMA Board. They are: clerk, vice-chair, and chair. These 27 plan a series of TMMA Warrant Information Meetings at which questions about forthcoming warrant articles are raised and answered.

The hope is to educate all Town Meeting members on the forthcoming issues upon which they will eventually vote. Written material is available for members to study.

Over the years, Town Meeting membership has become a much more sophisticated and time-consuming job. Today, it faces the complications of a town government that must meet the times and challenges of the 21st century. The recent election had no direct competition for major offices. However, there were competitions in some of the precincts with new candidates unseating some long-time members. So the ancient tradition remains alive and competitive in our own local democracy.

Mary Lou Touart is a Lexington resident and regular columnist for the Minuteman.

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