Dilemma at Town Meeting

Last week we had our annual town meeting here in this town of 885 registered voters. New England town meeting is often held up to be “America’s true form of democracy” — but it really isn’t anymore, at least not on any […]

By Edie Clark

Mar 16 2011

Last week we had our annual town meeting here in this town of 885 registered voters. New England town meeting is often held up to be “America’s true form of democracy” — but it really isn’t anymore, at least not on any grand scale. Most of the important decisions about the way we live our lives or the way our tax money is spent are made now at the state or federal level. For instance, no one calls to meeting a vote on whether or not we should go to war in Iraq or on health care or whether we should still get the social security we worked so hard for all our lives. The issues we vote on have decidedly less impact. It’s gotten to the point where some New England towns have even forsaken the whole idea of town meeting.

Fortunately, our town has not. Each year we gather in the town’s elementary school cafeteria to look over the warrant articles presented to us for our approval or disapproval. If more than 200 people show up for town meeting (about 20% of the population), it means we have something important to decide, such as a new school or some other expensive need. Even a new fire truck can be a hefty expense. This year, we had only twelve articles to consider, nothing huge, so there were chairs available. One of the articles on the warrant was the question of whether or not to spend $70,000 to reconstruct the one-half mile of road that passes by my house, the paved portion of which is about one mile in total. Indeed, this road which I believe was first paved in the 1960s and has only been repaved once since then, is downright hazardous. The section just east of my house is a confusion of dips, bumps, launch pads, and deep holes. I’ve mastered the dodge-and-weave necessary to navigate without breaking my axle but the surface of the road changes as the weather changes, making it hard to really know what I’ll encounter on any particular morning . A few hours before town meeting, I saw my good neighbor to the west walk down the road, wearing her orange reflective vest and carrying a yard stick and a pencil and paper. This made me curious.

When she got up at the meeting to speak in favor of the article, my curiosity was resolved. Apparently she had measured every hole and crack in the road. She inventoried eighteen different potholes and reported the exact measurement for each, some of which were a foot and a half in width and six inches deep. She also counted the cracks, which mimic seismic activity. She held the microphone firmly and spoke strongly in favor of having the road repaired as outlined by the article. I agreed the road needs repair but I was not so sure this should be done. Her house sits well back from the road but mine does not and, especially in the summer, I am constantly astonished at the speed at which some cars take this road. In spite of these craters (there’s a reason why they are called “frost heaves” — the frost in the ground heaves the pavement up and out and, for the most part, the thaw pulls it back together, as if the road truly breathes), cars hurtle past my house, some of them in excess of 50 or 60 miles per hour. I shudder for my little dogs who, in spite of my best efforts, are sometimes perilously close to the road. Just past my house, the road turns to dirt and I always listen for the (fairly profound) sound of their tires hitting the dirt.

The town’s proposal was not only to reconstruct the road but to do it in stages. They proposed to scrape up the old pavement, grind it, add culverts and then, over this road laid bare, compact a 12-inch layer of crushed stone — in the context of this town, a major highway project. And that would be the end of it for a while. Money for the pavement would be “addressed in a future year.” In other words, we would become a dirt road, at least until the town authorizes the application of new pavement. Times are tough. What if they never did?

Assuming the project made it through to completion, I had two worries, one was speed: if people go that fast on a badly decomposed paved road, how fast will they go on a nice new smooth stretch of pavement? And, for the time until the pavement would be approved, at least a year, maybe more, the dirt kicked up from the road would make quite a difference for me in the house-cleaning department. I spoke about my concerns, though not as passionately as my neighbor. But others voiced concerns as well. One wondered how many people ever use our road and another felt that spending money like that was foolish. When the question was raised by the moderator, a voice vote, aye or nay, delivered the decision: Nay. I felt relief.

A small victory but it’s nice to know we have a little bit of say in some things. I will continue my well-practiced dodge-and-weave. And I won’t complain.