In Defense of Town Meeting [Politicus #1,158]
The ancient Town Meeting we most vividly recall was on March 12 and 26, 1966, in T. Waldo Herrick Gymnasium in the new Duxbury High School. The meeting approved accepting the gift of the Wright Estate from the Ellison family for a “beautiful new school” in the words of the late Howard Clark, and to move forward in selecting sites for new fire and police stations. We spoke against building another school in the Alden Street/St. George St. area, and proposed putting new schools closer to the geographic center of town. A spirited interrupter called out, “Bunk!”
The moderator was Bartlett Bradley — son of Harry Bradley, the moderator of the 1930s and ’40s. With Charles Fargo and Allen Bornheimer, “Bart” was the second of five moderators, including Friend Weiler, over 75 years. A remarkable run of capability! If memory serves, the 1966 meeting was better attended than last Saturday’s session. But the excellence of the volunteers who serve the town today is at least good as their predecessors’. The long-term quality of the town’s servants has contributed to its long-term quality of life.
- Doubters of that might indulge another anecdote. Since joining The Clipper we have tried to concentrate on the complexity of issues affecting Duxbury and avoid other activism — except for one issue. In Boston, the failure of democracy is illustrated by two MBTA bus stops 6,600 feet apart, serving Faulkner Hospital and Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain. The Faulkner’s stop, which serves a lightly-used bus in a white neighborhood, has good lighting, sturdy shelters, a manual traffic light and a handicapped way crossing Centre Street.
The Shattuck’s stop, which serves relied-upon buses to black neighborhoods, has poor lighting, no traffic light and no curb cut in the center strip of Route 203 — a busy state highway. The main indication it is a bus stop at all is worn grass in summer and icy footprints in winter from attempts by passengers to scramble over the center strip to the outbound stop. It has functioned this way for as many 50 years.
No elected official high or low, black or white, ever seems to have noticed. On January 15 — Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 84th birthday — we published our findings, with photographs, in aboutblackboston.com. Six weeks later we attended a three-hour “state of the neighborhood” meeting with elected leaders. We intended to ask if there were any plans to redeem the Shattuck bus stop’s lethality.
But the public was not invited to speak. Only invited interest groups addressed the elected leaders. They responded with speeches flattering each other and making promises. We finally cornered the city councilor (Mr. O’Malley) who represents the Faulkner’s stop and the lethal part of the Shattuck’s. He said he would look into it. We await his report.
At Monday evening’s resumption of Town Meeting, the intense issues were fluoridation of the drinking water and the proposed allocation of 60 percent of community-preservation funding for land acquisition. Each was fervently debated before being voted upon — fluoridation shall continue, and open space shall be the first purpose of community preservation. The meeting did not adjourn until 11 p.m., but — as was the case in 1966 — it was civil, it settled things, and it left the town free to move on to other issues.
There are of course many differences between city and suburb. Form of government is the one we want to emphasize. Communities that give up on Town Meeting invite the antics of professional politicians, and risk losing their effective democracy. Communities that keep Town Meeting tend to get better politicians — since they typically emerge from service on voluntary boards. Democracy, as Churchill noted, is the worst form of government (except the rest).
–D.A. Mittell, Jr.