I hate to say this, but Town Meeting, that noble paradigm of American democracy, doesn’t seem too democratic anymore.
When we first moved 22 years ago to Williamsville from Providence, RI, land of infamy and uncontested mayoral appointments to school boards and other budget-crafting entities, we were impressed and encouraged by the Town Meeting construct. As a teacher, I’d have the day off from school; my then-spouse was self-employed and so we and our three boys, then new to the old Newfane elementary school, would dutifully attend each Town Meeting until the kids finally convinced us that, since they couldn’t vote, it didn’t make much sense to be there. Pick your battles.
Now retired, I slid into the 2018 Town Meeting a little late and left a little early to head to a nine-day silent meditation retreat. (Yup, I’m a lucky woman to be able to weave such time for introspection and self-development into my life.) As I looked around at the meeting attendees, fewer than at last year’s when there’d been fewer than at the year before’s, I saw several teachers, no teens and a lot of folks who looked grey like me. As article by article came up for discussion, it was we assembled who made decisions about what should be spent in the next 12 months and how. I was swept with an odd feeling of embarrassment and violation as it hit me straight on: We, the more fortunate in income and/or circumstance, are committing expenses for folks—adults and voting-age teens—who increasingly, it seems, cannot afford the luxury of taking the day off to attend what history’s honed as New England’s pride, the apex of democracy: the town meeting. I know many of these folks --many who lack two spare dimes to rub together: How wrong it is that I can have such an impact on their families’ budgets; how wrong to not hear their voices.
What to do? Short of shutting the entire state down save emergency and health services, could every town, for starters, do as some have already done? Move Town Meeting to an evening, to an after-dinner time with free child care provided. That just might eke us a little closer to true representation again.