I skipped the Bruins game and American Idol final last Wednesday night to exercise my democratic duties and it was good.
My political tendencies are very neutral, conditioned by four years of being a political reporter in the early 198os when any suggestion of partisanship was career suicide. I’ve attended an inordinate number of meetings of selectmen, school board, zoning boards of appeals, licensing commission, legislative subcommittees, and state of the state addresses. I’ve questioned presidential candidates, sat on the dais as questioner in a U.S. Senate race (John Kerry’s first term replacing Paul Tsongas), and countless other brushes with government, politicians, elections, and the public hustings.
Last night I attended my first annual meeting of the Cotuit Fire District, and for some reason, felt closer to the governing process than I ever have before. There is a certain mythology about the New England Town Meeting, a very basic, grassroots form of village government where a Town Moderator runs an unruly crowd through a busy warrant of expenses and amendments before the quorum vanishes and everything falls apart. The town meeting is a cherished American tradition dating back to Colonial times,one that has all but vanished under the pressure of professional town management and charter reform.
In the 1920s Cotuit petitioned the state legislature to form a Fire District so the people of the village could raise taxes and spend them on basic infrastructure services that were not coming from the Town of Barnstable. Those services included a village water department complete with wells, water towers, water mains and hydrants; a volunteer fire department, and a prudential committee to manage the budgets and oversee the village meeting place, Freedom Hall. This unique ultra-form of government has been under assault in recent years, as the neighboring villages of Osterville, Marstons Mills and Centerville consolidated in the name of efficiency. But Cotuit has hung on, even looking into the possibility of seceding from the Town, electing its own boards of fire and water commissioners and prudential committee despite challenges and constant calls to modernize and do away with what some critics feel is an anachronism.
I walked to Freedom Hall, signed in with the monitor as a resident tax payer, collected my yellow voting card, a copy of warrant, and the budgets of the fire and water departments. I sat by myself, surrounded by familiar and unfamiliar faces, the prudential committee, clerk and moderator on stage, the fire and water commissioners below them, at their own tables facing the two columns of seats with microphones standing in the aisle between them.
There were a lot of familiar faces, some from back in my grandparent’s time, but still turning out faithfully each and every may to debate the village issues and get the work done. I was embarrassed in the knowledge that this was my first.
The moderator laid down the rules of order, noted the presence of a Barnstable police officer should anyone ignore her gavel and need ejection (apparently the 2010 meeting was extraordinarily raucous). A second moderator was present to take over the discussion of any warrant articles that might represent a conflict of interest for the full time moderator. Introductions were made, and the meeting was brought to order.
There is a particular species of meeting participant I’ve observed in nearly every small town meeting I’ve covered as a reporter who feels compelled to comment on each and every item, or raise fine points of order to … for lack of a better word, make an irksome point. These people are generally categorized as a “gadflies” — a term I’ve never been fond of, as it reduces often very well meaning involvement to insect status.
I won’t report on the meeting, other than to say it lasted four hours, raised some very interesting points, required a lot of attention to follow correctly, and in the end, presented very efficiently the management of the village for the next 12 months. My greatest concern as a resident tax payer is that the Fire District retain its independence from the Town of Barnstable, as a vital definer of the village’s official identity, and a forum in which I can directly have an impact on how my village is managed and tax dollars spent. My heartfelt thanks to the elected officials, engaged citizens, and village employees for making this form of government work and thrive in times of faceless professional management.