A Voice and a Vote
It is winter beyond my window. The ocean and the sky are shades of gray, the still bare branches of the wild poplar trees at the edge of the one-time orchard (names do not fade quickly down here) behind my house are dark against the pale sky. The view framed by a single pane in the two-over-two window by my desk could be one of early March. Then, leaning a bit the scene is altered, new green is visible, looking more the work of a prankster with a can of spray paint than signs of the spring that cannot seem to take hold.
It is almost May, but the lilt that usually fills my head, a tune from Camelot, is as removed as that ill-fated kingdom of dreams. Often it is cold in late April, but it is rare that it does not fade in the final reel, giving way to days of golden sunshine on verdant land.
Old weather memories are tied to events, in early May comes the annual Financial Meeting of the Town. It used to be bigger, a date set aside, as was Sunday morning, when nothing else was scheduled.
These day, we come to Financial Town Meeting, if we even remember it at all, and we look at the dollar totals and wonder how they got so high and we look at the audience attendance and wonder when it became so sparse.
Perhaps the block of town employees did not used to be so large that it — rightly or not — dis-spirited the rest of the population, perhaps people didn't leave when “their” budget had passed because there was more a sense of ownership of the whole. Perhaps the numbers were not so overwhelming. It was not all good in those Old Days; in the long ago eighties every department was on its own, every budget seemed to be a battle too often hanging more on politics and personality than a broader overview of governance. That was wrong, but we may have gone too far in the other direction. Since we first had a Town Manger –—trivia question, who was the first TM? — there has seemed an even greater reluctance to ask questions.
Some of the longest discussions were over the smallest items, as though we reached a point in the process and someone thought “But I have to ask something” and there we would stall on garbage collection in the New Harbor (in the days of the “Gar-Barge”) or the ever elusive Animal Control.
Maybe everyone didn't feel so pressed for time, the season was not so upon us in early May, or there were fewer television stations, no net-flex, no internet. We had insanely attention grabbing headlines, succession over moped control legislation brought in news helicopters. People paid attention to warrant items rather than blowing through them with barely a murmur, like all those referendum items for statewide financing on the ballot in November. It does seem clear that bonding is the only avenue toward fixing some things but let's as least make informed decisions; the annual cost of a particular issue, separate and apart from the whole, tells us nothing.
Maybe we have come to rely too heavily on a weekly newspaper that did not exist thirty years ago. It is a net gain, more people having wider access but I know how easy it is to fall into reading someone else's interpretation rather than going to a mind-numbing meeting myself.
And, yes, we have professional government and yes, we live in a representative democracy, but having faith in the people we elect and who had been hired is one thing, abrogating our own responsibility is quite another. The process of compiling the budget is, rightly, in the hands of those who work with it, but Financial Town Meeting is a gathering of qualified electors, despite the frustration of not being able to change so many things, we still do have a voice and a vote.
It is our budget, it is our town, and as much as I hate the term I find myself again asserting that we are all stakeholders. While I admit to a visceral reaction when someone who pays no taxes tells me what we should add to the budget I also know there are very few people who live here who are not in one way or another impacted by what the town does or not does not do.
That I even still say “we” when I speak of the budget may be a statement in and of itself. It may in part be generational. I attended those meetings in high school; my parents encouraged it. My father and a buddy sat at our dining room table, poured over the voting list and predicted the result of a general election within five votes. Then someone tipped their hand and they found a block of four, an early lesson in the math of elections; a five votes margin can be erased by three votes switched.
There was a year I did not have go to Financial Town Meeting for the first time in decades and I stayed home. It was 1992 and those session were still running more than one night. It happened that I ran into someone in the old Seaside Market and blithely announced the glory of my freedom.
A woman I had known since she first arrived “for five years” a very long time ago, the widow of my dad's vote counting compadre, looked at me and pronounced “your mother would be ashamed of you!” The second night, I arrived at the school gym part way into the meeting, still in my gardening clothes.
I remain grateful for the nudge. My parents are pretty good about not haunting me but that one they might not have let pass so easily.
Financial Town Meeting, next Monday, May 5, at 7 p.m. at the school. Be here!