Friday, February 19, 2010

New England Town Meeting

Often I am asked about town meetings and other terms pertaining to New England town government by people researching their roots from outside of New England. They see the annual reports in the archives, and have questions about the terminology, and the form of government. If you have ever seen Norman Rockwell’s paintings of the “Four Freedoms,” I think the painting of the young farmer standing up to speak at the town meeting (the “Freedom of Speech” painting) epitomizes this form of government. Every registered voter can speak at town meeting, which is why all the faces surrounding him are looking on quietly, and respectfully. This is a truly democratic process.

We no longer vote in “fence viewers”, “hog reeves”, and “hay weighers” but we still have selectmen (and selectwomen). The board of selectmen does the day to day supervising of the town between town meetings. Some larger towns have a town manager. Every town has a town hall, which used to be known as the “meeting house” for both religious and government purposes.

New England towns have been run by a town meeting form of government since the early 1600s. During a traditional town meeting all the debate, decisions and voting are done in one single meeting, often running until late at night if there is a lot of debate and discussion. It is up to the moderator to cut off discussion, when appropriate, to keep things moving along. This often makes him the most unpopular guy (or woman!) at the meeting. In Connecticut, voters may debate the articles before them, but they cannot change or amend them. Long town meetings are a challenge to seniors, those with small children, and others who can’t stay up late, and by the time the voting takes place, often only a few voters are left to carry the vote.

I’ll never forget my first town meeting. I was eighteen years old, and my dad registered me to vote and dragged me to the meeting during my college spring break. My favorite sport is “people watching” and this was a small town, so I had a great time seeing all the characters I missed when I was away at school in Cambridge. Everyone voted in a new expensive $100,000 fire engine in five minutes, but then debated for over an hour on the manual typewriter the police station should purchase.

In Londonderry, the town meeting is held on a Saturday, usually running all day. It’s a marathon session, so people pack breakfast, lunch, their knitting projects, etc. and child care is available for the youngsters. Smaller towns run their meetings on one evening. When we moved to Londonderry over 25 years ago, the population of the town was about 10,000 people. It has more than doubled since then, causing a very long meeting and some changes.

By 1996 Londonderry switched to a Town Council/Budgetary Town Meeting known as a SB2 form of government (Senate Bill 2). Any warrant article over $1 million is voted by ballot on Tuesday preceding the meeting. Some see the SB2 form of government eventually replacing all the traditional town meetings in New Hampshire’s future. When towns get too large for this form of government, they can vote to be named a city, and the board of selectmen is replaced with a mayor. Our neighboring town, Derry, voted to be a city in 1980s, had an unpopular mayor, re-voted to be a town, and now remains a town even though at 37,000 people they are the fourth largest in population in the state of New Hampshire. Their town council is responsible for both the legislative and governing body of government, including the appointment of the Town Administrator.

Traditionally, in our region, town meeting is held in March. That’s because March is a long slow month, not quite winter, not yet spring- what we call “mud season.” Except for being the maple syrup season, not much is going on here in town. In Vermont, the first Tuesday in March is a state holiday known as Town Meeting Day. A published annual report is prepared in advance of most town meetings, and can be a valuable source of genealogical information. Most town reports still include birth and deaths, as well as town meeting minutes, tax information, lists of town employees and their salaries. There no longer are “fence viewers” and “tithing men” but we’ve added conservation and heritage commissions, cable TV and solid waste committees. The library in Londonderry has annual reports dating back to the early 1700s. Londonderry, New Hampshire will be holding its town elections on March 9th and the annual town meeting on March 13, 2010.

For more information:

Our Londonderry Town Hall website: There is information on the town meeting , our budget, the ballot, etc. if you are interested. This information is probably available on line for any town in New England. Our ancestors would be impressed.

Democracy in America: the Henry Reeve text as revised by Francis Bowen, now further corrected and edited with introduction, editorial notes, and bibliography by Phillips Bradley, by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835, 1840), (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1945), Chapter V: Spirit of the townships of New England

Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How it Works, by Frank M. Bryan, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for explaining this, Heather. I found it really interesting, as I've never participated in anything like that.