Three-Hundred-Some-Odd Years and Countin’

The art of the New Hampshire town meeting

Ayuh 02 Feb 01
First documented in Exeter (“The Exeter Combination,” 1639), town meetings are still going strong in most New Hampshire towns. Dick Wakefield, a former Moultonborough moderator, coined it, “People’s annual opportunity to sound off.” He adds wryly: “Some overdo it.” Like this one guy who seemed compelled to speak to every article. When a woman proposed a complicated amendment, Dick asked for it in writing. “As I read the amendment aloud,” Dick said, “I realized this guy was talking. Again. I said, ‘Sir, I’m speaking now. Sit down!’ Second biggest round of applause I ever got.”

“What was the biggest?” I asked.

“When I retired as moderator.” 

At town meetings, citizens gather to discuss, debate, complain and — occasionally — compliment. Then, everybody having heard the same discussion, they vote. Like George W. Bush, the people in the hall on that day are The Deciders. Even if the scheme to rid the lake of milfoil by importing muskrats doesn’t fly, at least the environmentalist who hatched the idea has the opportunity to be heard. An aficionado tried to explain our unique brand of direct democracy to an outta-statah. He didn’t get it. She handed him a town report. Light dawned: “You vote on streetlights!” 

Exactly.

In Unity, years ago, some folks thought the streetlight in the village was a waste of electricity and should be turned off.

“But if you turn off the light,” a villager queried, “and somebody drove through at night, how would they know that they had been here?”

I landed in Unity one evening for a storytelling session, so I asked if the town did, indeed, have a streetlight.

“No,” they said. “But we used to.”

At town meetings, constituents question town officials directly. With the first-ever cruiser on the warrant, a voter observed: “Three officers, but just one cruiser. How’s that work?”

“Two in the front and one in the back,” the chief said.

Vehicles are darned expensive. At another meeting, a citizen protested — loudly and at length — the cost of a dump truck.

“You don’t like the new truck?” someone yelled back.

“No, I do not!”  

“Then don’t vote for it.” 

In another town, the proposed purchase of a ladder truck prompted lively discussion. 

“There’s three problems with this ladder truck,” an opponent said. “First, we can’t afford it. Second, we don’t have a building big enough to store it. Third, there’s nobody in town smart enough to drive the back half.”

Woodstock voters weren’t sure if they could afford a new snowplow. An optimist mentioned that Lincoln was also in the market for a plow. “How about we split the cost,” he suggested, “and share the plow?” 

“Far as I know,” the road agent said, “when it’s snowing in Lincoln, it’s snowing in Woodstock.”

A stickler in Grantham complained that the budget line for road maintenance had been overspent the year before and demanded an explanation from that town’s road agent. Alfred Holmes stepped to the mic. The stickler said something along the lines of, “Why did you exceed your allotted budget in the previous fiscal year, Mr. Holmes?”

Alfred Holmes leaned toward the mic and cleared his throat. “It snowed,” he said, and returned to his seat.

Finally, in Brookline, a voter expressed a grave concern. “I see we’re spending $500 for a sexton. What is a sexton?”

“I’m the sexton,” said Grover Farwell. “And I’m going to bury you.”

Brookline’s legislative body was so tickled by both the question and the answer that the exchange was repeated the following year. I’m told, in fact, it became a cherished tradition, like town meetings itself. 

Categories: Humor