Sunday, April 06, 2008

Democracy's Durham cousin

[Pre-meeting planning by moderator and local officials]
[Durham's democratic true believers]

I spent my Saturday morning at the annual Durham town meeting. Traditionally held the first Saturday in March, the town moved the meeting up to April, which may have contributed to the meeting’s sparse turnout.

My primary reason for attending was to do some first-person research for the new book and tie it to John Gould’s contribution to Pine Tree State history and his first book, published in 1940, New England Town Meeting: Safeguard of Democracy.

Gould’s book captured the flavor of five area town meetings during town meeting season, 1940, including Durham’s annual meeting that March.

Gone are the days when town meeting was as much an all day social event, as it was an exercise in democracy. I’ve lived in the town of Durham for nearly twenty years and I’ve witnessed first hand the changes that have diminished the importance of democracy’s most intimate vehicle. Fewer Durhamites than ever view the annual town meeting as duty not to be shirked, or easily brushed aside.

Like many former rural communities across the state, Durham has undergone monumental changes from the days when it was a sleepy farming village, on the other side of the river, from Lisbon Falls.

Friday night, I was one of just under 300 voters stopping off at Durham Elementary School to vote for selectmen, members of the planning board, local tax collector and other assorted municipal matters. This represented about 10 percent of the town’s registered voters. I met the president of our local historical society and he enticed me to purchase the Durham Bicentennial Report that was compiled in 1989, to celebrate Durham’s 200th birthday.

I’ve enjoyed thumbing through it and learned that nearly 70 years ago, Durham was a struggling municipality of 784 residents (the town’s lowest modern ebb), and it’s most pressing problem — substantial town debt, a holdover from a depression-era exodus of landowners and taxpayers.

Since 1950, when the population numbered 1,050, the town’s population has trended upwards. The past 25 years, Durham has been part of the state’s migration to the suburbs, as the population of the town has exploded, from 2074 in 1980, to near 4,000 currently.

The town’s municipal budget, excluding schools and fire, is over $4 million dollars. That’s a substantial amount of money for taxpayers to be responsible for. Sadly, attendance at town meeting is but a shadow of what it was back in 1990, when my wife and I attended our first town meeting.

Not knowing the culture of meeting day, we assumed that we could wait until about 15 minutes before the 9:00 am start, to drive the mile from our home, to the school We arrived to find the parking lot choked with cars and we ended up parking ½ mile from the school, along Route 9. In order to vote at town meeting, you must prove you are a registered voter and then, you are given a laminated card of yellow, blue, or whatever the color chosen for that particular year. The line to obtain voting cards was out the door and snaking around the corner of the school. We learned an important first lesson about town meeting—get there early. The gymnasium was packed. The basketball court was filled with plastic school chairs, better designed for the smaller frames of K-8 students, than six foot tall adults. The remaining bleacher seats along the back wall were elbow-to-elbow with the town’s “back-benchers,” many of them members of the local fire company. Fortunately, my in-laws were kind enough to save us seats, so our laissez-faire first visit didn’t work against us.

Saturday’s attendance, which I estimated to be about 125, was a fifth of what it used to be, almost 20 years ago. My previous experiences with town meeting colored my expectations and getting a later start than I anticipated found me concerned I’d be relegated to parking alongside the road once again. Imagine my surprise when I pulled into a nearly empty parking lot on the side of the school, with not many more vehicles occupying the front parking lot, alongside the main road.

Upon entering the gymnasium, 10 minutes prior to the meeting 9:00 am starting time, there were less than 50 people present, with half of those made up of members of the planning board, selectmen, budget and school committees. I had no problem obtaining my blue card granting me voting privileges on the floor. I made my way around, greeting a few familiar faces, but after 20 years living in this town, I still felt like a stranger.

My original intent was to stay for just a short while, to shoot some photos, take some notes for the book and then vacate, as I had an interview scheduled for early afternoon. Also, my son had come up from Boston, with his girlfriend and I hoped to see them and possibly have lunch together and direct them to some sites around Lisbon, which they both agreed to photograph for the book. Mark’s girlfriend, Gabi, is a very good photographer and we had talked about her doing photos for my book. Long story, short, I wasn’t planning to stay long. Being back in the atmosphere of one of democracy’s most participatory practices, however, I found me it hard to get up and leave. I was still hanging around past 10:30, making plans to exit after just one more article.

I didn’t actually leave until 11:30, about 90 minutes later than I had planned. What hooked me early in the proceedings was a common procedural maneuver, which seeks to move an article that won’t be taken up until much later and attempting to move it ahead in the article roll call. The tactic at hand was moving Article 59, which proposed changing the position of Tax Collector/Treasure from an elected position, to an appointed one, by the selectmen, was put to a vote after article four. The vote passed and the meeting’s first debate ensued.

A steady procession to the floor microphone occurred, with residents announcing their names and where they lived in town.
Sandy Polster, a resident of Meadow Road called the proposal, “the most blatant power grab he had ever seen.” Others, concerned about the loss of autonomy, asked for explanations from the selectmen. Finding myself caught up in the spirit, I marched to the microphone to say my piece about what I perceived as a loss of citizen participation.

People are less engaged in there communities than at any time in recent memory. Our own family’s experience mirrors that trend. Mary and I rarely attend. I was there primarily for research purposes, although I do think I’ll make a point to come back next year. My father-in-law passed away in 1999 and my mother-in-law now lives in Brunswick. My brother and sister-in-law that once were neighbors have left town, as has my other sister-in-law. Her ex-husband (they got divorced), sat in front of me and we chatted briefly about town politics. Many of the regulars that we used to see had found other things to do with their Saturday. Even my niece and nephew, first-time homeowners in town, weren’t in attendance. That might change when and if they have children and they enter school.

Milt Simon, longtime community leader, current budget committee member and newly elected selectmen, summed it up best, when asked about the changes in town meeting attendance.

“People today just don’t get involved like townspeople did in the past. I never understood the concept of a ‘bedroom community’ like I do know,” he said. “Now, people live here, work elsewhere and don’t feel the need to give back to their town.”

When I asked him why he continued to stay involved in town government and in restoration projects, like the revival of the Eureka Grange, he added this.

“That’s the way I was brought up—to give back to my community,” said Simon. “I don’t really know any other way than to be involved in the town where I live.”

Unfortunately, Simon’s values and spirit of community are rapidly dying out.

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