Saturday was my town’s annual meeting. I love these things. They are true democracy at it’s best and worst. Plus they are wicked entertaining. The small farm community I live in has a bevy of personalities and political ilk. On one end of the spectrum are my friend Kip and I. Both registered Greens, both worker/owners of a small seed company in the winters and small farmers in the summer. At the other end are the large diary farmers in town. Most of them rock-ribbed conservative Republicans. Although our political views differ widely I have great respect for all of these folks.
This year’s meeting was remarkably cordial. The first year I was back here in Maine after a decade away I went to meeting with my neighbor Frank. It was great fun because he was related to half the people in the room and gave me running commentary throughout the meeting. At one point the folks there actually voted not to let one person talk anymore. “That’s my cousin” says Frank. I must admit that this person was kind of sucking all the air out of the room and seemed to comment on every single article in the warrant but I had never been at a meeting where it was voted by the entire town to shut someone up. And I grew up in a town where annual meeting often came close to fistfights breaking out. Another nearby town has plain clothes State Troopers present because the local militia folks come armed. This is our Mud Season entertainment.
But it is also very serious. This year we are all feeling the pinch and we cut a lot of items in the budget by 50-60%, mostly social safety net projects. This was very difficult for me to accept. As one woman pointed out if we would like to go down to the local food pantry when they are open once a week we would see quite a few of our neighbors from this town lined up to get what assistance they can so that their kids can eat every day. We funded the food pantry at the full amount they requested. We also agreed to fund a program by Maine Farmland Trust that will cost share the expense of Community Supported Agriculture shares for folks up to 150% of poverty level. This program will support local farmers and feed folks who are really feeling the effects of this terrible economy. And we voted to pay fair wages to our road crews based on a state government set pay scale which will help several small local contractors actually make a living.
So on balance we saved money and still managed to do some good. Some of the votes were very close. Everyone in the room was there because they cared enough to give up one of the first truly beautiful Saturday mornings of the year to sit in a room with their fellow townspeople and participate in the governance of the place they call home. The most direct, hands-on experience of democracy you are apt to find anywhere.