Towns Are Like People

When I worked in newspapers I covered a lot of town governments around New England. One of my first beats was a bunch of towns in New Hampshire and Vermont where I would keep track of the selectmen and the school board and the sewer district and everything else.

Lots and lots of meetings.

It was a good opportunity to learn about local government up close and personal — democracy in action. Town Meeting Day was a real challenge with six or eight towns to cover, but there, for anyone interested in New England towns, was the real show.

Towns have character; they’re a lot like people.

I remember one guy, I believe his name was John Lyman, who had been chairman of the board of selectmen in Bradford, Vermont for twenty years or so, and he was explaining why the town had to shell out $60,000 for a new grader.

The old one kept breaking down, he said, and fixing it again would be a waste of money. He said when you put a in a new part it wears down the old parts around it. It sounded to me like he had worked on this machine a time or two himself.

Here’s a guy the town has been electing for 20 years, and he’s obviously giving them good advice, but of course they voted down that warrant article.

Warrant articles — they’re called other things in different states — are expenditures that are not included in the selectmen’s budget and are voted on separately.

So people vote the budget up or down, usually up, because if they vote it down there would have to be an expensive special election, and it being a special election, people involved in the schools and in town government would have a big advantage and they might wind up with a bigger budget than before. I seen it happen.

So having approved several hundred thousand dollars of their hard-earned money in the regular budget, largely non-discretionary items (meaning items voters can’t do anything about), they turn to the warrant articles and debate them all day long.

I remember one article — two or three thousand dollars for new mats in the gymnasium in Enfield, New Hampshire, the very gym where the meeting was held.

There was a popular member of the board of selectmen who was a martial arts instructor and he had his arm in a sling. When he got up to speak on the warrant article, and someone asked him why his arm was in a sling, he said he was injured on a mat just like the ones hanging on a wall. That article passed.

I remember people complaining at a school board meeting that they kept seeing this school bus go by their house with only one student on it. How could the town waste money that way. The superintendent had to patiently explain that school busses drop off students one by one or in small groups, so at the end of their route…

Sometimes back then — not very often these days — the school board or the board of selectmen got a majority that said yes too often and taxes would go up too much and there’d be a taxpayer uprising and the pendulum would swing a bit one way or the other each year. To me, that’s democracy.

The problem with tax limitation statutes is that they prevent the pendulum from swinging back. Once schools and services and town employee contracts have been ravaged, they can’t be restored. It’s a ratchet effect that can easily destroy the character of a town.

And once that’s gone, it’s like Humpty Dumpty.