Thursday, September 01, 2005

Town Meeting

Town Meeting is a New England tradition. During the 20 years that we lived in New Hampshire, I attended 17 such meetings in the Town of Salem, NH where we lived. Town meetings are the the very definition of democracy. All citizens (who are registered to vote and thus declared "eligible") may gather together - once a year, usually - to "conduct such business as may lawfully come before the meeting". Town Meeting decide the town's budget, elects the officials designated to oversee policy and to hire staff, and pass on whatever articles are brought before them for approval.

The Town of Salem is (or was then) the sixth largest community in the state, and the only one of the six that retained the Town Meeting government form; the other five are cities -- Manchester, Nashua, Portsmouth, and two others I don't remember. Salem's population then, the 70's and the 80's, was about 26,000, nearly identical to Key West today.

In truth, the nearly 10,000 eligible voters of the town never went to Town Meeting, and couldn't have been accommodated if they had. A huge turnout would be around a thousand people, all crammed into the high school auditorium. More often, six to seven hundred voters carried out all necessary business, usually on one Saturday, sometimes overflowing to a second session.

I had a conversation last night with several Bahama VIllage residents. One of them talked about how the residents of Bahama Village, the older residents, aren't into participatory democracy. What they do, he said, is talk to each other about things that are going on, and say things like "isn't it awful", or "isn't it wonderful". But that's not that much different than anywhere else. Voter participation rates are low almost everywhere in this country, peaking every four years when national politics bring voters out in larger numbers. Still, the rate of participation is still only in the range of 30-50%, dropping even lower when an election is "only" for local offices. In Key West, this can mean (and has meant) that Commissioners are elected by as few as three to four hundred voters, and a Mayor can win city-wide with 1500-2000 votes.

Similarly, when an item (such as the Truman Waterfront Traffic Plan) comes before the Commission (as it will next Wednesday, the 7th of September), it will be the actions of a few that affect the future of the many. A few of us in Bahama Village are working to convince the fewer of the Commissioners -- we need just four of the seven votes -- that the plan before them is the wrong plan, and that it needs to be redrawn to recognize, respect and honor the wishes of the residents of Bahama Village. We think we have the support of a majority of the community to gain that respect.

Watch this space.

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