By Bill Schubart
Soon it’ll be Town Meeting Day. Our venerable system of local government — where it’s still practiced — calls townsfolk together to debate and make decisions of local and global import with a mix of comity and comedy. The characters and issues vary from town to town, but there are some regulars one can count on seeing and hearing from.
I’m especially fond of the harumphers, those with the ageing teenage-pout who glower at the moderator with their arms firmly crossed on an ample bosom or chest. When recognized, their pronouncements are usually terse and glacially clear, after which they settle back into their harrumph posture with a “go ahead and top that!” look in their eye.
Contrast the concise harumpher with the hortatory flatlander, who after rueful recognition by the town moderator, rises loaded for bear to address the assembled multitude, often with notes. The topic of their discursive oration rarely has much to do with the issues warned in the Notice of Town Meeting. They might ask how townsfolk propose to address the toxic impacts of gluten in our society or the trash accumulating on Mount Everest. Eventually the flow of their homily is interrupted by the moderator who thanks them for “their deep concern about such an important issue” and, to the relief of all, we move on to the next warned item.
Occasionally, we encounter the truly addled, demanding time to speak on their unique issue, the significance of which largely eludes the puzzled assemblage. “The sperm count among males in the Western Hemisphere is down by fifty percent and the reason, I read online, which no one wants to talk about, is feminism.”
“Not germane” says the moderator firmly, pounding his or her gavel on the nearest hard object. The moderator’s efforts to restore order only elicit further gales of laughter, and the prophet of doom usually retreats from the proceedings in a huff.
My favorite is the enterprising local who has a much cheaper solution for every planned town purchase, for example, the Fire Department’s request for a new half-million-dollar ladder truck in a community of two-story farm and village houses. “For several hunnerd dollars,” he suggests, “the town could buy some ‘luminum ‘xtension ladders, weld hooks on the side of the last quarter-million-dollar pumper truck we bought nine years back and are still paying off, and hang the new ladders off it. Ought-ta work jess fine.”
Or the local mechanic who rebels at the idea of the town spending four-times what his raised ranch cost in 1953 to buy a brand-new town dump truck for the road crew. “Chrimie, I could rebuild that engine with new lifters and valves for what I paid for my used ride-on lawn mower last spring. What chu thinkin’? Or ain’tcha?”
Still, our town meetings survive in the face of change, as they’re among the last opportunities for townsfolk to assemble, eat home-made brownies and cookies rich in gluten, drink cider, exchange news and views about the town and share their own hardships. It’s a place to think beyond the self, escape screens, and ward off the loneliness of our technical age.
Bill Schubart lives, works, writes, and goes to town meeting in Hinesburg.