Monitor Board of Contributors: Decoding town meeting
Keith Kuenning carries one of the ballot boxes down to the front of the auditorium after votes were cast in a secret ballot for Article 4 at the Bow School District meeting at Bow High School on March 8, 2013. The article proposed bringing together Bow and Dunbarton students together starting in seventh grade to keep numbers at the Bow schools high enough to maintain the quality.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Town Clerk Linda Landry calls residents to her line to pick up their ballots at the Dunbarton School meeting on Saturday, March 16, 2013. More than 500 people packed the Dunbarton Elementary School gym to attend the meeting and voted to leave the Goffstown School District for Bow's.
(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)
It’s March. The month for melting, mud and meetings. Town meetings, that is.
For anyone who hasn’t attended a town meeting, they can be quite an experience. Often, residents are making decisions on a dozen or so issues, or “articles,” which, by some unwritten and ancient law created by the Huns, must take a minimum of three hours.
An article reads something like this: “To appropriate the sum of $17.52 to authorize a dedicated fund whereby the Town will perpetually metabolize the riboflavins whose vicissitudes will ruminate their liabilities over a millennium of arachnids.”
It may be that my town has a higher percentage of lawyers who understand such things. The rest of us just fake it, which is why people want to stand up and ask for clarification.
You can learn a lot by listening to your neighbors. A question like, “Does this budget include the heating of the toilet paper rolls in the library?” would indicate that the speaker isn’t skilled at reading income statements.
“On page 6, line 3, column 4, I believe there is an omission of 44 cents in accrued interest from the 2009 budget” indicates that the speaker is too skilled at reading income statements.
When a speaker uses helpful terms like “slimebag,” you can assume she is not a supporter of an article, or anyone associated with it. When she manages to speak of the good old days and the Great Depression in the same sentence, you can assume she feels passionately about it, although sometimes it’s hard to tell which way she’s leaning.
A speaker is asked to approach the microphone and clearly state his or her name and address.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve lived in town for decades and are the offspring of the moderator, you must identify yourself.
People are also asked to limit themselves to the article at hand. This appears to be much harder than it seems. For some reason, those magic microphones inspire people to quote the Constitution, evoke times gone by and share recipes.
Eventually, no one is left standing at the microphone. At this point, the moderator says, “Any further questions or discussion?” If he is skilled, he will allow approximately one nanosecond before moving on. After a particularly long discussion, the moderator may say, “Seeing no one, I thank you all so very, very much.”
As the meeting proceeds, I admit that the articles start sounding like: “To appropriate an appropriation which is appropriate for the Town Appropriator to appropriate.” This is when it is appropriate to go buy food from whatever local group is fundraising just outside the meeting. A jolt of sugar or caffeine always helps the democratic process, and getting off the bleachers is good for the circulation.
I don’t have a long attention span, so I find myself begging to the gods of civil society that we pleeeeeease not have another ballot vote. I’m not alone – the crowd gives an audible groan when the moderator asks everyone to line up by the ballot boxes. The rule is, anyone who requests one must stay and suffer through it like everyone else.
“Everyone else” is less than 10 percent of the voters in town. I don’t judge anyone who doesn’t attend these meetings, though. Am I a better citizen for just showing up? I didn’t even know there was a Sludge Removal Capital Reserve Fund or that it needed additional funding. I voted to fund it, though, merely because removing sludge seemed like a better alternative to amassing it, which may lead to future articles like funding a Sludge Storage Facility or paying for a Sludge Consultant.
If I lose focus, I’m in trouble. At our last meeting, the moderator asked for a vote and I had no idea what article he was talking about. My husband pays attention, but by the time I could ask him, the vote had already happened.
The “ayes” had it, and I wasn’t one of them.
In closing, I propose that we appropriate a distribution of carborators in lieu of a transitional authorization of all refrigerational liabilities. Unless my taxes will be lower if we don’t.
(Melissa Jones lives in Hopkinton.)