Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Democracy of Neighbors

These last two Saturdays were taken up by the physical and personal practice of democratic governance in what be it’s most fundamental and direct form – the New England town meeting. Last week, my town, Barnstead NH, held it’s annual meeting. The list of warrant articles was much shorter than in past years. The biggest items put before the people were hiring another full time police officer ($70,000 added to the budget), $100,000 for a emergency expenses fund for dealing with natural emergencies, and the budget itself.  Smaller items included the approval of the transferal of deeds for certain properties purchased through a tax sale, requests for the town to assume the maintenance and upgrade of certain private roads, and so on. In the end the police officer was voted down, the emergency fund was amended to $25K and then to $80K, the roads will stay private and the budget was passed at $3 million and some change. Discussion was often lively and direct, but never out of line (although the line is a pretty fluid concept in some town meetings) and Robert’s rules were put to good work keeping things straight and in good order. We started at 9:00 and were done by 1:00 in the afternoon.

Today was the meeting for the School Board. The budget was the single biggest item, with a new teacher contract coming in close to that. Our teachers have worked without a contract for a year,  after the first negotiated contract was turned down at last year’s meeting as being to rich. This year’s contract was more modest and was accepted with a good margin. The budget discussion was also interesting, with an amendment from the floor proposing to strip $100,000 from the superintendents operating budget in order to force him to become a lobbyist to obtain money from the state and federal governments promised us to fund mandates placed upon our local school systems. Although the amendment would likely not have achieved it’s desired ends if passed, it was more of a political statement anyways. The good people of the town got the statement, and having heard the message voted it down soundly before passing the budget as proposed. 13 articles were disposed of by noon.

The school board meeting was noteworthy in that the school budget is easily 3-4 times the town budget, but usually gets a smaller attendance. Not this time. The school board meeting was packed.

I love these meetings for a few reasons. Our nation’s founders fought for, among other things, the right for representation before taxation. What I was privileged to take part in today was almost precisely the converse of having taxes levied by a king over the sea, or even a legislature boxed up in never never land. It was we, the people, discussing what we need to do in order to maintain a civil and effective society and voting to tax ourselves to create what we want. Or, in many cases, voting to NOT tax ourselves. And then we must live with our own decisions, for good or for ill. A theme you will come up against again and again in the essays of Wendell Berry is that local control is the only type of control that is really safe and healthy in the long run. The example that comes to mind is of the shift in ownership that has taken place in recent decades of the great north woods of Maine, NH, VT, and NY. Especially in Maine, the great lumber mills were once owned by local people. They were indeed wealthy and powerful owners of enormous tracts of land, but they lived in the same region as their holdings, and employed people who were essentially their neighbors. Now, most of those holding have been transferred to multinational conglomerates who have no care for the the people, no concern for the land, but know it only as numbers on a spreadsheet that must be made to add up a certain way. Because they do not have to LIVE WITH their decisions, they make decisions without much concern for the human implications of those decisions. This is, perhaps a transferable principle to government as well. It is easy to for someone in Washington DC, or in Concord for that matter, to pass a law mandating this or that. They may or may not fund the mandate, but it doesn't matter because then the mandate becomes the problem of the local people. On the other hand, every decision we make at town meeting carries the very clear awareness that it affects not only me, but my neighbors -- the people I see, and whose home I drive by every day. The people whose kids play with my kids. And when I say this awareness is clear, I mean it. It is a topic that is brought up in every discussion at the town meeting -- "this is going to be tough for the folks whose taxes are going to go up." We hear it over and over again. I suspect that even though we are amateurs, this sort of communal awareness causes us to make, on the whole, pretty reasonable decisions.

There are downsides to a local town based government run along these lines, and probably good reasons why you don’t find it anywhere BUT New England. But I gotta tell you, I really like it. I suspect that if more places ran themselves along these lines, we might be much better off as a nation. 

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