Last night I attended my fifth or sixth Town Meeting and, like voting, it's a very humbling experience. Stow has an open Town Meeting, which means it's open to all voters. I grew up in a town that had representative Town Meeting, which meant that the town was too big to house all the voters who would want to come. While my middle school history teacher tried to explain what it was (he was a representative), I never understood it until I moved to Stow. It's a practice that dates back to colonial times and is somewhat unique to New England. We have a moderator who makes sure everything runs smoothly and it's quite official with the Town Clerk on stage, the Selectmen, Town Administrator, and Finance Committee seated at the front and we methodically plod through the Warrant which specifies each and every piece of spending for the following year's budget.
If you want to participate in how your town is run, move to a town like Stow that has such a form of self government. You get to decide how much each town employee gets paid, whether the fire department will get that shiny new fire truck, and all kinds of other issues that may seem mundane to most, but are really quite interesting. Over the years we have had contentious debates on big projects like whether to fund a new school or buy land for playing fields and little things like whether to officially recognize the name of a road. But the great thing about Town Meeting is that anyone can discuss any of the items on the warrant. You can ask Why does this person get paid this much?" or "Why doesn't the police department buy a hybrid vehicle?" (a perennial favorite). If you want, you can feel free to vote against every spending article if you want and have the satisfaction of knowing you did so. And unlike large elections that don't turn on a single vote, often Town Meeting votes are quite close. In Town Meeting your vote certainly counts! Especially if there is an issue that divides the town.
Unfortunately, last night we learned that our Town Moderator, Ed Newman, is suffering a serious illness. Gary Horowitz (pictured), Deputy Moderator, ran the show and broke the news to everyone in attendance at the beginning. He read an optimistic letter from Newman who vowed to preside over next year's gala. Town Meeting, while it has its moments, is certainly far from boring. During votes or down times various people "entertain"–this year there were presentations on the upcoming 325th Anniversary celebration known as Springfest as well as an update on our elementary school building effort. Plus, you get to talk to lots of people you don't usually get a chance to talk to. Apparently, though, not everyone appreciates the power they have at Town Meeting or appreciates the entertainment. Attendance last night was 211 and there are 4464 registered voters; a rate of a little less than 5 percent.