Moved and Seconded
Having Your Say: NH town meeting - its storied past and uncertain future.
"This will be the quintessential, comprehensive, authoritative, be-all and end-all work on NH town meeting" – so said George Geers, the publisher of "Moved and Seconded" [Plaidswede Publishing, $19.95] written by Rebecca Rule.
And so it is.
At 344 fact-filled-but-never-boring pages, it no doubt sets a record for the meatiest look at a tradition that stretches all the way back to 1639, long before there was a state of New Hampshire, long before there was a United States.
Rebecca Rule, a wonderful storyteller and a big fan of town meeting, traces its history from the first humble gathering of townsfolk in Exeter to the still-humble gatherings of today. Along the way she regales us with tales that reveal town meeting's oddities (did you know there was a town meeting musical?), changing official roles (there used to be a sealer of hemp and flax) and funny bits of historical trivia (someone once stole a town's new fingerprint machine), but more importantly the book demonstrates the role town meeting plays in our governance and in the shaping of what we are as a state.
As Rule writes, everyone from silent knitters to rabble rousers, hoary historians to transplants, across-the-board-cutters to homespun philosophers go each March to a town meeting that starts early and lasts long, and there they do no less than decide the fate of their community.
But, alas, as Rule points out, town meeting – one of the last vestiges of pure democracy – is threatened. The Legislature's passage of SB2 back in 1995 allowed towns to decide matters at the polls rather than hashing them out on a Saturday afternoon (and maybe evening) in the school gymnasium or town hall.
One of the reasons for the new law was declining attendance, no doubt in part because of the long days of deliberation. Rule asks, "Are people simply too busy for pure democracy?" If so, she says it's a "devastating truth."
She urges people to fight the apathy ("democracy is hard!") and keep the long tradition of town meeting alive by getting involved.
One glimmer of hope – according to the book, town meeting has been threatened before and survived. Even as far back as 1897, there was talk of the "decay of town government." For a variety of reasons a strong revival of town meeting started in the last half century.
If you love the tradition of town meeting – and especially if you don't – this book is a must-read. (But then so is any book written by Rule.)