Ray Duckler: Continuing a tradition, towns meet to decide future
Three years ago, Mark Sisti switched on the town meeting spotlight and aimed it directly at me.
I didn’t throw in my two cents on the purchase of a fire truck, but I experienced what many of you have felt through the years, and the unique institution continues today.
Because today, as you know, towns meet.
Sisti, Gilmanton’s moderator and a well-known lawyer, stopped the meeting with the suddenness of an emergency brake and told me I had to move to the side. He said he was preserving the integrity of the process by separating me from registered voters.
“Is this really necessary?” I asked, jackass ears sprouting in front of 300 silent people.
“Yes,” Sisti answered sternly.
(Insert crickets chirping here.)
With my jacket over here and my notes over there, I picked up my stuff and moved to the side.
Sisti then lowered the brake handle and continued the meeting.
Writer Becky Rule of Northwood knows the feeling. Her new book, Moved and Seconded: Town Meeting in New Hampshire, the Present, the Past, and the Future, includes research from town meetings statewide.
Although she’s a public speaker and a celebrity within literary circles, she’s seen a gymnasium turn into the Roman Colosseum, with residents and committee members being fed to the lions.
“It was very scary, and it still is for me,” Rule said. “There’s a lot riding on it, and you’re going to see these people over the next few days and for years after that.”
Town meetings create all kinds of scenes, some funny, some awkward, some downright rude. People bark at one another, point fingers, make accusations.
They knit, sleep, roll their eyes and gossip. Some sit quietly, others salivate while looking at the microphone.
The heartbeat of the process comes from you, the residents brave enough to approach the mic and open a window into what you believe, and the town officials who sit up front, exposed and vulnerable, held accountable for proposed expenditures.
In the 1980s, Rule was on the Northwood School Board. During a meeting, she said, an official commented on a “mistake” in the proposed budget: “Periodic tables should be listed under furniture.”
“It was no joke,” Rule insists.
She relayed this nugget after a woman gave a long speech promoting an article.
Husband: “Don’t listen to her. She’s never right.”
Wife: “I married you 35 years ago, and I haven’t been right since.”
“That’s the beauty of it,” Rule said yesterday. “A husband can say nay and a wife can say yea, and they still have beans for supper.”
Rule’s first taste of this spotlight came more than 30 years ago, when the town wanted to close the local beach to save money.
The moderator asked for questions.
Rule popped up.
“I don’t think you should close the beach,” Rule recalled saying.
“Is this a question?” she said the moderator asked.
“I bring my baby there.”
“Is that a question?”
“I tried four times to phrase it into a question and finally just sat down,” Rule said yesterday.
She continued: “Democracy takes courage, and if you can’t stand up in front of neighbors and say what you believe in, that’s your problem. If someone gets mad at you, that’s the way it is. It takes courage to stand up for your convictions.”
And to speak out against pumpkins.
Mel Graykin, a longtime Deerfield resident, said a woman once argued against allowing all paddle crafts, not just canoes and kayaks, at the local boat launch.
“She said we could be opening the door with such a broad term,” said Graykin, a writer and public library employee. “We have big pumpkins, and she was worried people would hollow them out and be paddling pumpkins off the dock. The argument against that was that we weren’t too worried about pumpkins.”
Graykin found a newspaper clipping from 1959, documenting a woman’s accusations that the Deerfield moderator was guilty of corruption and possessing dictatorial power.
The local and state police ejected her, the article said.
Conflict, of course, is part of the mix. Always has been. Harold Janeway saw a lot of spicy debates during his 23 years as moderator in Webster.
“We had our difficult moments,” said Janeway, who retired two years ago with a special gavel honoring him. “But it was gratifying to see how these people could work it out and still be speaking to each other. At least for the most part.”
The tradition continues today, with familiar faces and long-standing issues.
Sisti will be back in Gilmanton, running the show. Bradford voters will revisit their debate over what to do about the town hall, badly in need of repairs. Janeway said sparks could fly when $120,000 is sought to fix Webster’s public safety building, which doesn’t handle snow like it should.
I’ll be at the Pembroke town meeting, 10 a.m., Pembroke Academy.
Save me a seat.