Norman Rockwell Meets Jerry Springer: New England-Style Democracy

Here in Kennebunk, like the rest of New England, we take our town meetings very seriously. In other parts of the country, when somebody talks about a “town hall meeting,” they mean a politician drops by to answer some questions. Here, a town meeting is an honest-to-goodness legislative body. The townsfolk — or at least those of us who have the stomach for it — pack into the high school gym and elect a moderator, hopefully somebody who has memorized the Maine Moderator’s Manual. We make motions, debate questions, and make legally binding decisions. We vote by raising our hands or by filing past a big, wooden ballot box. We start at seven PM and go until late at night. It’s government by those who don’t need babysitters.

Last night, we had a school district meeting to vote on the budget. The school district covers three towns, so it’s basically a town meeting times three. We used to vote on the school budget in the normal way, by stepping into a voting booth, but that just wasn’t enough democracy for us. Now we vote twice on the same budget, first at the district meeting and then, two weeks later, in a voting booth.

If you were to attend one of these meetings, you’d think it was an unpredictable mess. But if you go to several of them, you realize that they’re as predictable as a sitcom, because the same kooky stuff happens every time. What follows are the obligatory shenanigans for every town meeting and school budget meeting in Kennebunk and Maine Regional School Unit 21.

Before the meeting, a vocal minority — the same people every year — will write letters to the local papers urging everyone to vote against the budget.

At the meeting, one percent of the people will do ninety percent of the talking.

At the beginning of the meeting, before the moderator finishes his second sentence, somebody will make this motion: Once we’ve voted on a question, nobody can bring it back to the floor. The motion comes from somebody who’s afraid their allies will leave early and their opponents will bring an item back for another vote. Ironically, the person making the motion is always voting in the minority, so a revote could only help them.

On at least one question, and possibly all of them, somebody will move to have a written ballot (also known as a secret ballot) instead of a show of hands. This motion is hugely unpopular, because a written ballot takes about ten times as long as a show of hands. The motion comes from people who have deluded themselves into thinking that more people would vote their way if only they could vote secretly. The system is designed to make this motion easy to pass — on some items, ten percent of voters can force a written ballot.

At least one motion will be so confusing that the moderator will misunderstand the intent.

At least one motion will raise a complicated procedural question, and the moderator’s decision on the matter will invariably piss somebody off.

The moderator will make a mistake in the midst of confusing motions, and people will yell indignantly.

At least one speaker will introduce himself as a member of a town budget board, implying that he has some authority or at least knows what he’s talking about. Budget boards are advisory panels with no authority and no responsibility, a forum for people who like to complain about taxes but won’t be held responsible if the streets don’t get plowed or the kids don’t get educated. Announcing that one is on a budget board is roughly equivalent to putting on a tinfoil hat, in terms of the message it sends to the audience.

At least one person will talk about how long they’ve lived in the community or how many generations of their family have lived here. Translation: “I’m in the minority, but I feel like I should have more say than people who weren’t born here.”

The odds of an article getting passed are inversely proportional to the number of people who speak in favor of it. If almost everybody who gets up to speak is on the same side of an issue, it’s a safe bet that they’re a small minority. As Robert M. Pirsig wrote, “No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow.”

Somebody will speak passionately but will make such a confusing argument that I can’t tell which side of the issue they’re on.

At least once during the meeting, somebody will move to call the question, and the motion will pass easily. In other words, somebody will move to end debate on a question so we can just vote and get on with the meeting. It takes a 2/3 majority to call the question, but since one percent of the voters do ninety percent of the talking, that leaves ninety-nine percent of voters who just want to vote and go home.

When the question is called, somebody will complain loudly that they’re being silenced and that it’s undemocratic. Unfortunately for them, the desire of the many to go home trumps the desire of the few to keep talking.

The moderator will tell several people that they’re out of order, and at least one of them will yell back, “No, you’re out of order!”

On at least one budget item, and probably all of them, somebody will aribitrarily move to reduce the dollar amount by some percentage. Usually it’s either 10% or 100%, but last night somebody surprised us with 1%. At town meetings, the moderator always explains that it’s too late to change dollar amounts, and you can only vote yes or no. At school district meetings, changing dollar amounts is apparently fair game, since we’re going to vote again in two weeks anyway. Last night’s 1% motion failed by a wide margin.

Apparently, budgets, school boards, and boards of selectmen get worse every year, because somebody always says this one is the worst they’ve ever seen. Examples from last night: “I’ve been a voter in Arundel for over thirty years, and I’ve never been so disgusted with the process.” “This is one of the biggest travesties I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Somebody will say something rude, and people will clap and cheer.

If we’re discussing a school budget, more than one person will say they don’t understand how the district could possibly spend so much on administration.

By the time the meeting ends, at least half of the voters have already gone home.

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