The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 30, 2001


Special Town Meeting comes off without a hitch

By 7:15 p.m. Tuesday evening November 27 there were enough townspeople assembled in Corey Auditorium to make a quorum (150 residents), and Town Moderator Sarah Brophy called the Special Town Meeting to order. Before the meeting concluded at 9 p.m., the auditorium was filled to capacity and those of us in attendance approved, either unanimously or by large majorities, everything put before us. We voted to place in the Stabilization Fund the final installment from the sale to the U.S. Government of the O'Rourke Land; we accepted as town ways roads in the Tall Pines development; we accepted the Bicycle Law, which establishes a noncriminal ticketing procedure against violations of rules of the road for bicycles and sets a level of fines not exceeding twenty dollars; we amended the town's bylaws to enable the Town Meeting moderator to declare obvious two-thirds votes without a hand count; we approved a new school wastewater treatment facility to be designed for the lower Banta-Davis Land; we appropriated money for further investigation of a possible building site for a new school; and finally we dismissed two articles pertaining to the use of Town Forest land for affordable housing.

As the Special Town Meeting got under way, Moderator Brophy called for a moment of silence to consider our basic freedoms and the value a Town Meeting offers to the citizens of Carlisle, especially in light of the recent events in the war in Afghanistan. Next she addressed the town officials on stage, as well as those in the audience, thanking them for all the time and effort they had given to make this meeting possible. This was followed by a generous and appreciative round of applause.

As we worked our way through the eight articles on the agenda, certain moments stand out in my mindCarlisle Police Chief Dave Galvin's clear and thoughtful presentation and defense of the Bicycle Law; Michael Fitzgerald's thorough explanation and documentation of why the School Building Committee was seeking a design for a new wastewater treatment facility on the lower Banta-Davis Land, and his praise for the enormous help engineer Michael Holland had offered the committee.

The evening's meeting went very smoothly, thanks to Brophy and fill-in moderator for the two-thirds-vote article, Wayne Davis. Those in the audience who spoke to the various articles kept to Brophy's four-minute rule and were respectful in voicing their opinions. Could it have been a patriotic response to the events of September 11 that made us all aware of the privileges we enjoy in a democratic society, especially in the pure democracy of a New England Town Meeting, where one can voice any opinion without fear of retaliation?

In closing, I regret I must address one sour note in the evening. As I recall, parents who insist on bringing babies to Town Meeting have been asked to sit in the back of the hall so if the child were to cry the parent and child could move out into the corridor. This did not happen on Tuesday night. Instead the cries of one child, seated at times in the front row of the auditorium, distracted the audience during several presentations. Hopefully, this will not happen again.

All in all, this was a Town Meeting that proceeded exceptionally smoothly. Many in the audience, I suspect, had come to address Articles 7 and 8, but not until we find out which 46 acres out of the 69-acre Town Forest is conservation land can we discuss this issue intelligently. Only when we have the facts can we move forward at a future Town Meeting to find a way to resolve this latest effort to increase the town's affordable housing toward the state-mandated ten percent.

The worst possible form of government

That's what Winston Churchill called democracy, adding, between clenched teeth, "except for all the others." I tell myself the same thing after every Town Meeting. There's got to be a better way, but no one has discovered it.

The problem must be with our education. We're brought up to believe that democracy is an orderly process whereby citizens with varying opinions debate rationally, then vote to decide on the Right Thing. We're told that democracy is based on consensus and compromise, and we don't hear about the truly nasty battles that go on in the course of public debate. I once read about an election in frontier Kentucky that was decided by a fist fight. The candidates ranged over an acre of ground for the better part of a day before the best man won out. When you come to think of it, Town Meetings are a lot like that.

I recently found copies of Norman Rockwell's World War II "Four Freedoms" paintings, commissioned by the Saturday Evening Post and used by the government to promote War Bonds. "Freedom of Speech" shows a Lincolnesque young lout standing in Town Meetingmouth open, face serious. Around him an old codger, a newly-barbered gentleman in suit and tie, a woman in a proper hat and others turn eyes and ears to the speaker. They listen with degrees of skepticism but completely attentively. Ah, but public debate is serious and powerful, isn't it? And so civilized.

So why isn't our Town Meeting like that? We come armed with emotions over issues that won't matter a bit in a year. We line up for our turns at being the young lout, sure that our carefully chosen argument will sway the undecided. We glare at neighbors who hold up hands for the Wrong Side. We vote one way in the meeting, another in the secrecy of the voting booth (because of those glares). If an issue is too complicated, it's doomed to fail. Probably not a bad thing, though; if it's too complicated to explain, it's probably too complicated to administer. There's nothing dignified or high-minded about democracy at the town level.

But maybe that's the strength of our way of government. All those personal opinions smooth one another out, and we come up with pretty good decisions. Usually not great ones, and only occasionally one that comes back to bite us. We can bear mistakes that we've made more than the incompetence of some faceless "they" that impose decisions on us. Town Meeting is taxation and representation. We don't levy salt taxes. We battle it out and then live with it, even when our side loses.

Carlisle sails its bumpy course on a reasonably even keel. Our small quorum of 400 citizens seems large enough to keep radical notions from gaining much ground, but not so large that the uninformed dominate. Those who bother to come usually know (and care) something about the town. So don't get too carried away with the battles and the long repetitive arguments. Just consider the alternative.

2001 The Carlisle Mosquito