Frank Bryan, author of “Real Democracy”: “A town meeting is a legislature of citizens, for citizens, and by citizens. The fact that each citizen of the town is also a legislator separates the New England town meeting from all other forms of democracy.”
From Wikipedia: “A town meeting is a form of direct democratic rule, used…in New England…since the 17th century, in which…members of a community come together to legislate policy and budgets for local government.”
Henry David Thoreau said, in a 1854 speech entitled "Slavery in Massachusetts": “When, in some obscure country town, the farmers come together to a special town meeting, to express their opinion on some subject which is vexing the land, that, I think, is the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States.”
The origin of the New England town meeting lies within the congregational polity the Puritan settlers established to govern both church and society in the colonial period. While it did not offer universal suffrage – women, children, un-propertied men and non-church members often could not vote – this system embodies the democratic principle that power rests with the people.
However, the authority to implement decisions made at town meeting is frequently exercised by elected officials, such as a board of selectmen, employed staff, citizen committees and appointed commissions. New England democracy thus has two principle aspects: power exercised by the people in town meeting and authority exercised by town government.
In practice, this system has experienced changes that lessened the scope of the people’s power and increased government’s authority, which have resulted from state/federal legislative mandates, increases in the size of a community, and issues that require more attention than a town meeting allows. These modifications have led to growth in both the size of town government and the length of town meeting warrants, with decisions made by the first being affirmed by the second. These understandable developments harbor a danger that the historic role of citizens gathered in town meeting “to express their opinion on some subject” may disappear.
The town of Harwich has faced issues that bear witness to the legitimacy of that concern. For instance, according to postings on the Facebook group “Harwich Old Timers,” some believe town meeting made a decision regarding the use of the former Harwich Middle School building that the board of selectmen then set aside in favor of another. According to published reports, an appropriate suggestion by some historic district and historical commission members that the Brooks Free Library be repainted in historically-accurate colors was not given due study (such as commissioning an artist’s conception for public comment) before being rejected. A citizens' petition initiated by the Cape Cod Coalition for Safe Communities and supported by more than the legally required number of signatures, which received positive support in Dennis and Brewster, tacit affirmation in Provincetown, and a similar negative response in Eastham, was effectively dismissed by the Harwich Board of Selectmen during a two-minute segment of its regular meeting without an opportunity to explain, defend, question or debate it. In the absence of open discussion of this issue, and after too much negative talk on radio shows and on-line sites, including a threat to her personally, the initiative’s sponsor, with the consent of her co-signers, withdrew the petition. Thus, the citizens of Harwich will be unable to learn about, debate, or express their approval or disapproval of this idea at the May town meeting.
Appearances and perceptions matter as much as factual realities. The draft warrant for the next Harwich Town Meeting is a tad overwhelming, with a mixture of routine matters and items of significant impact. Not all decisions effecting Harwich should be made at town meeting – but in any democracy those that are not so decided still require the consent of the governed to become effective. The recently board of selectmen-adopted and excellent Housing Production Plan is a case in point – it will take the understanding, support, and cooperation of private citizens and the business sector to achieve its goals.
The concept of the venerable New England tradition of democracy – of “We the People” – if it is to mean anything in modern day Harwich – must be realized in the town meeting, reflecting the image so poetically expressed by Thoreau: “the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States.”