March Madness — town meeting style

Posted March 22, 2012, at 4:11 p.m.

It’s that time of year again. Time for that northern Maine-specific form of March Madness.

And while it has nothing to do with a bouncing orange ball, it arguably has quite a bit to do with hoops and jumping through them.

All around northern Maine it’s town meeting time — that time of year when everyone has an equal say in a variety of budgetary, policy and educational issues.

Whether those opinions ought to be voiced or not is a matter of, well, opinion.

I’d never heard of the town meeting form of government until moving from the West Coast to the St. John Valley more than three decades ago. It is a very distinctly unique New England way of running things.

At their most basic, town meetings are annual open forums and quite possibly the purest form of democracy we have in this country.

Once a year municipal and school boards prepare a list of items in need of the public’s input and permission. Covering everything from million-dollar budgets to where a new street lamp should be placed, these items make up the “town warrant” for that year.

Every resident of legal voting age is eligible to participate by questioning, debating, opposing or supporting any or all warrant items.

To keep the meetings from descending into anarchy, a moderator is elected to make sure everyone has his or her turn and to prevent fistfights from breaking out.

Back when I was a full-time reporter and editor, first for the St. John Valley Times and then for the Bangor Daily News, taking any vacation time in March — town meeting month — was strictly forbidden.

All month long, weekends and evenings were reserved for town meeting coverage from the smallest of towns to the larger municipalities within my territory.

And it was a large territory stretching from Allagash to the west, eastward to Van Buren and south to Winterville.

In fact, on one memorable Saturday I hit town meetings in all three areas starting with Allagash in the morning and winding up in Van Buren that evening.

Town meetings may be democracy at its purest, but that can mean it can be democracy at its messiest.

On the face of it, it’s all rather Utopian, this notion of equal say for all.

But like all Utopias, from the biblical Eden to Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon,” things can — and do — go awry.

It was in Allagash one year that a particularly controversial article on the warrant drew some pretty heated discussion.

At one point a resident stood up and punctuated the end of his argument on the issue by loudly calling the moderator “an ignorant pig.”

As a good reporter, I’d been furiously scribbling down all comments and wondering how much trouble I’d be making for myself — or the paper — by using the “ignorant pig” reference in my story.

Right about then the moderator decided a break in the action was needed to allow tempers to cool, and I noticed the name-caller making his way over to me with a rather determined look on his face.

“Were you writing down what I said?” he asked.

I nodded while wondering to myself if he suddenly had second thoughts and wanted to plead with me or threaten me against using his name or comment in print.

“Did you write I called [the moderator] an ‘ignorant pig?’” Another nod.

“Are you going to put that in the paper?” he asked and, before I could answer, he made me read back the quote to make sure I had it in all its inflammatory glory and that I had his name spelled correctly.

Spirited debates notwithstanding, I loved covering the meetings in the smaller towns, where the annual gatherings to conduct municipal business often took on a festive air.

Raffles, bake sales, craft fairs or other fundraisers are common backdrops to the meetings. One year I even won a St. Patrick’s Day cake in a raffle.

Arriving early to the meetings there was always time to grab a coffee and take part in the dozen or so impromptu family or class reunions taking place around the meeting hall.

The halls themselves are usually the town’s school gymnasium or cafeteria with the business conducted under decades-old high school sports banners or announcements of upcoming student theatrical productions.

Debates can be pretty spirited and have been known to pit family members, friends and neighbors against each other.

But as a rule, residents who only hours earlier had been actively working to thwart each other’s political or budgetary will can be seen walking out of the meeting laughing, joking and making plans to meet for lunch the next day.

Once the meetings really got cooking it never failed to amaze me how residents, having just passed funding for a million-dollar project with no discussion, would then spend close to an hour debating the merits of an extra $500 for the local library.

A former publisher for whom I worked would explain this fiscal phenomena as part of basic human nature.

“People understand $500,” he’d said. “They’ve had or have that much at one time, so they’ll argue about it. But a million? For a lot of people that’s a pretty abstract number.”

In gymnasiums and auditoriums around the nation the 64 NCAA teams who made it to “the big dance” are slowly whittled down to the “sweet 16,” the “elite eight” and the “final four” during the sporting world’s version of March Madness.

Closer to home, we are in our own final stretch of town meeting March madness. It may lack the national attention, office betting pools and color commentary of collegiate basketball, but local democracy is every bit as important.

After all, someone has to decide where those street lamps should be.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at jbaylybdn@gmail.com.

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