Town Meeting

Peter Golden writer

On a rainy April evening a trickle of citizens straggles slowly into the Wellesley High School auditorium. Town meeting is about to begin—the 126th in the history of Wellesley—but for now the hall is almost empty.

On stage the high school jazz band is warming up. Around the perimeter of the room the names of the greats, seemingly chiseled on the wall in foot-high Roman-serif letters—Audubon, Lincoln, Franklin, Longfellow and more—look down on the proceedings.

Suddenly, the conductor dips his baton, waves it commandingly (‘Look, it’s Mr. Platt,’ someone whispers), and the jazz band snorts to life. It wheezes, subsides, emits a furtive, squawking toot, then springs to its task. A surprisingly tuneful rendition of an old Steely Dan song emerges out of the dissonance.

Now the hall begins to fill; greetings are exchanged; at tables situated near the stage selectmen and their advisors gather.

Police and firemen in dress blues enter the hall; a positive ferment of conversation breaks out. The band segues into a lusty rendition of Taking Care of Business. Looking about, one can now see the hall is packed.

On cue, the color guard, assembled near the entrance, flags a-swirl, troops into the auditorium accompanied by the jazz band’s parting number—the national anthem.
The moderator begins by reminding the assemblage that “anyone can speak and there will be no applause, booing or throwing of popcorn.” Murmuring laughter ripples across the crowd and dies away. A calm decorum that will be maintained for the rest of the evening settles in. Wellesley Town Meeting has begun.

A month later and two miles to the north, another town meeting is running in Weston. However, the ceremonials are brief to the point of perfunctory. In a rigorously modern assembly hall the moderator and town clerk stand stage right behind an enormous, battered old desk.

At center stage amidst lowered lights a gigantic screen throws brilliant, almost hypnotic PowerPoint images of budget items out into the audience. The atmosphere is restrained and serious; the proceedings brisk.

The warrant—that timeless rendering of annual budgets, proposed public employee salary schedules, building proposals and related ephemera—all vital to life as we know it—is read out. Moved along with dispatch, voted and approved, it takes an outsider a moment to catch on to what is taking place.

Weston is calm and deliberative and Weston does not fool around. If this year’s gathering is any indication, in Weston Town Meeting debate is often encouraged but rarely undertaken.

The $50 million—more or less—on which the town will run in the fiscal year ahead has clearly been considered, portioned, compromised, and resolved, long before this assembly gathered, but democracy demands a public hearing, and it is getting one.

Civility—dry, brisk and to the point—rules to the advantage of all who live in this old place, where forests and fields are prized and pastoral beauty, long lost in towns of similar size and proximity to Boston, appears around every corner.

The business of the evening speeds on. Outside the building, tall perimeter lights, white, elegant and somehow redolent of the sea, look out on a distant, pink-tinged horizon. Crickets fiddle loudly enough to calm the angry drone of the nearby Mass Pike.

Once there was a time in Wellesley and Weston when town meeting was not a local occurrence, but one would have to look far back into the 17th century to find it, when neither place had a legal identity of its own.

Both towns and their annual deliberations evolved out of previous associations—Weston’s was with Watertown, from which it formally took leave in 1713, and Wellesley’s was with Dedham, and later Needham from which is separated in 1881. For over 300 years the townspeople of both communities have dutifully come to town meeting, wherever it might be held.

As in most other small Massachusetts communities, the annual assemblage has served as a reliable and well-regarded form of civil administration—both being subjective qualities, of course. General Gage, commander of British troops in Boston during the Revolutionary War, utterly despised town meetings, and for good reason.

Correctly viewing them as centers of sedition and rebellion, his spies (some of whom were seen in Weston for other reasons) informed him of what he knew all too well: town meetings were organizing, equipping and paying for local militias, better known as Minutemen.

These bands of citizen farmers, as often as not battle-hardened veterans of the French and Indian Wars, represented a formidable threat to the English military presence. If the outset of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord was a sponsored affair, it can be fairly said town meetings picked up the tab.

To look for the true beginnings of town meeting itself, though, one must go back to times long before the Revolution and even the Puritan “First Settlement” period: far, far back. Nearby Natick marked its first town meeting in 1651, when most in attendance were Native Americans.

In Town Meeting Time, a spare, no-nonsense, black-bound “Handbook of Parliamentary Law” that has been compared to Robert’s Rules of Order, and for decades has served as a guide for New England town meeting moderators, the genesis of the institution can be found. To be sure, it is an ancient one.

Where to start? Perhaps in the shire courts of Anglo-Saxon England, or further back still in the informal, out of doors gatherings of the Viking hordes that swept across England after the Romans abandoned the island in 410 AD. Perhaps in the memories of Roman soldiers left behind, who might have remembered plebiscites held to protest poor pay or an abusive officer.

In these ways and many more, Wellesley and Weston have fallen heir to an ancient, venerable, and extremely durable means of self-government that may well be the purest and most direct form of democracy known to man.

Indeed, the reports and recommendations that are the grist of Wellesley’s and Weston’s town meetings often lead to serious debate.
This year in Wellesley debate focused around amendments to zoning laws centered on “mansionization,” the tendency to build big after the “knockdown” of a preexisting residence and stretch the limits of lot sizes in the process. Proposed modifications to a town playing field, including the use of synthetic turf, also led to lengthy discussion.
“It all came down to two questions: How do you protect community interests, while respecting people’s property rights at the same time,” said Susan Hurwitz, a past chairman of Wellesley’s advisory committee. Early on in town meeting she spoke with eloquence about a proposal to remediate plant growth in Morse’s Pond. In the not-too-distant future, pond water should be clearer and less choked with invasive weeds. The synthetic turf will have to wait for another day.

Town meeting is in fact a culminating event, a grand presentation of a two semester, team homework effort carefully assembled in the “warrant,” a brief report (although never brief enough) of “articles” (draft bylaws), filtered through, and recommended or not for their fiscal suitability by the selectmen’s advisors—the “Fincom” in Weston or Advisory Board in Wellesley.

It must also be noted that while town meetings in the two communities are models of decorum and civility, Proposition 2 1/2 looms over the budgetary process like a glacier over an Alpine village. As a model of fiscal constraint, it is formidable.

Destabilize Proposition 2 1/2 with an override—at least one that has not been thoroughly debated and agreed upon before going to the polls for confirmation by voters—and a level of conflict can develop that pits neighbor against neighbor in a form of internecine struggle comparable to the Punic Wars. Such contingencies are only undertaken with extreme caution.

More expedient and decidedly less contentious is a time-proven device called “debt exclusion,” which, while requiring voter approval by the registered voters of a town (as does an override), allows town administration to borrow slightly beyond established limits for purposes of funding capital projects. One might compare the process to taking a second mortgage.

Because debt exclusions are typically used to fix schools and infrastructure or fund lingering obligations (as was the case recently in Weston for pensions), they tend to excite limited contention in town meeting debate.

Collectively, almost all who participate actively in town meeting are volunteers, with the exception of the town manager and, in Wellesley, the clerk, who are paid professionals. Heads of town departments stand in attendance to answer specific questions that may arise, but the town meeting form of government is mainly a civilian undertaking: the people rule “from the bottom up.”

In Weston (as in the majority of Massachusetts municipalities) one can participate in town meeting without even being elected, for, in the “open” form of town meeting practiced there, the only qualification for entry is enrollment as a registered voter.

Wellesley holds differently, electing members from its precincts to serve for staggered terms in a “representative” form of town meeting. On whatever basis the assembly is constituted, however, two central mysteries still remain.

First, why would anyone in their right mind involve themself in the process, which, depending on the year and issue can be interminably long, painstaking, and detailed to the point of hypnotic? Second, given even the vaguest sense of self interest and regard for the greater good, why would not all citizens come flocking, given the enormous impact of local government?

Here is an answer, if not an entirely satisfactory one: Most of us think little of it, but school must be kept, roads paved, streetlights lit against the darkness, trees pruned, and snow plowed.

Such details of town life and a thousand more, including soccer fields, veterans’ affairs, fuel bills (climbing like a rocket), municipal salaries, and town employee health benefits must all be considered, planned, budgeted, financed, and paid for. In its wisdom, state law requires all municipal budgets to be balanced. As individuals we may have little effect on the proceedings in Boston or Washington, but in Wellesley and Weston all are vitally concerned with storm drains and soccer fields. This is what self-government is all about.
Some might say that the taxes we pay and the money we borrow to ensure the reliable conduct of town government are excessive. Others disagree. It is clear, however, that without the mediating effect of town meeting and its underlying process, the local control and unique quality of life it engenders in Wellesley and Weston would surely evaporate like a puddle of rainwater on a sunny day.

Across the centuries the tradition of local government endures, and with it the souls of two New England towns. That they are the beneficiaries of something fine is clear. The tap water is pure, schools are among the finest, and no matter how hard the rain or deep the snow, the streets are cleared and citizens are able to get out and about.
One can take such amenities for granted or respect the source of their origins and engage in the process oneself. And if you choose to view town meeting as one of the main reasons for an exceptionally agreeable way of life in these parts, most surely you are right.

Summer 2024