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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Henningsen: Town Meeting

Thomas Jefferson supposedly called Town Meeting the "wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self government and for its preservation." That’s something to cling to if tempers rise and snarky comments fly. Too often, this annual gathering can feel more like an old-fashioned witch hunt.It’s not easy being on a Selectboard or school committee. It requires a lot of time and energy, the willingness to master complicated issues of finance and law, the talent for finding common ground from which to work through disagreements, and the patience to explain decisions repeatedly to townspeople who haven’t informed themselves about important issues, haven’t followed widely published board minutes, or can’t remember the answer they got the last time they asked their question.

I’m always impressed by just how well-prepared Selectboards and School Committees are to handle virtually any question from the floor.

Questions like:

Should we construct a new garage or a school gym?

Does anyone know why a popular local road seems to be sliding into the lake?

Shall we replace our faithful ’83 pumper, or pay $220,000 to repair it?

Shouldn’t we install a pellet heating system in the elementary school?

And questions like these:

How did the town overpay the school district with $500,000 of our property taxes and what can we do about that now?

How can you ask us to cut the fire department budget, when you only made up your minds about this last week and didn’t let anyone know?

What’s this thousand dollar line item for office supplies for the Public Works department? That’s a 567% increase!

“Debate” may be too polite a term for what goes on at Town Meeting. That’s why there’s lunch – so we can get back to being neighbors again, or at least rest up between rounds.

At the end of the day, though, Jefferson was right. Anyone attending Town Meeting comes away with renewed appreciation of the democratic process – messy and contentious though it is. As we debate budgets, complain about taxes, and conduct an inquisition on departmental office supplies, we’re modeling our devotion to a principle articulated in the Declaration of Independence: that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

And we should never take that for granted.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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