Every year, it seems, since 1995 — the year that SB2 was approved by the state Legislature — more and more New Hampshire towns have abandoned traditional town meeting in favor of the more convenient, and more logistically reasonable, way for voters to decide their town’s business. For some, though, there’s no replacing the democratic spirit that fills a room with hundreds of voters, each empowered to speak their mind and describe their own vision for their community.
Town meeting is a Yankee tradition going back centuries, stemming from an age when farmers and loggers could spare a few hours in March for arguing about local issues.
Traditions change and evolve over time. In Sandwich, Lee Quimby was moderator for a decade. “One town meeting, I had Rev. Dr. Lee Rouner do the invocation. People liked that so much that, after I did that, they voted for doing that every year, and I felt very good about that,” Quimby said.
He has passed on the moderator’s gavel, but said he’s gratified to know that a person of the cloth will again encourage Sandwich voters to use their ears, as well as their mouths, when that town meets on Wednesday.
Quimby’s favorite town meeting memory, he said, came before he was moderator. He served as a selectman for the town first, and it was during his time on the select board that he was part of an effort to re-route a stretch of the state road that skirts Squam Lake and brought motorists right past the town beach.
“The old road bed was right on top of the beach. We just dreaded it; one day someone was going to lose control of their car and go crashing down on the beach,” Quimby said.
Moving the road away from the beach took a lot of work, and a lot of trips to Concord to convince the DOT to go along with the plan, he said. After all that work, the proposal still had to go to the town’s ultimate decision-makers — the voters at town meeting.
Despite the improvement in safety – plus the fact that the town’s beach was significantly enlarged by the agreement and the town was able to add a public boat launch – there were still people who spoke against the plan, Quimby said. In the end, though, a majority of voters approved.
“That just took so much work, I just remember the feeling I had of it being passed.”
Now, when Quimby goes out for a boat ride on Squam Lake, he said, “I look at that beach, and it’s a very good feeling.”
In Center Harbor, moderator Charley Hanson has been attending town meetings for nearly his whole life.
“My dad was a selectman for 30 years; my mother was involved in the town,” Hanson said. “I probably went to my first town meeting at eight years old.”
Town meeting isn’t always the most efficient way for a town to make decisions. Several years ago, the town’s select board wanted to expand the police department’s space. Voters shot the plan down at first, and the selectmen had to spend another year revising the plan with their critics in mind. The second time around, it was approved.
“I think we ended up with the best answer to our issues at the time; it was a pretty gratifying feeling,” Hanson said.
His favorite part of town meeting, he said, is the feeling of community togetherness, when the town’s department heads present their budgets and plans for the year ahead, and voters sometimes take the opportunity to thank them for the work they’ve done.
“When a longtime town clerk, Sheila Mohan, retired, we did a little surprise for her,” Hanson said. The surprise included a video from her children who lived out of state. “It was just really nice. It just exemplifies that town meeting is when a community comes together and does its business, but it’s also the community-ness.”
Ken Randall, now retired, said he moderated 39 meetings in Tilton, including town, school district, and fire district meetings. He said he found the job of moderator — the person who presides over the meeting to ensure that business is done in an appropriate way — to be rewarding.
“I just took to it, enjoyed it, enjoyed Robert’s Rules of Order, and then had my own rules of order. You have to be fair and square at any meeting. Everyone has the right to talk, and they certainly can do either plus or minus on whatever topic is on the floor,” Randall said.
Over the past 25 years, more and more communities have elected to switch to the so-called SB2 style of deciding local issues by Australian ballot. Voters meet in February to decide how the articles will appear on the town warrant, then vote on those articles during all-day secret balloting in March. Proponents say that SB2 requires less time for busy voters, and most towns, especially larger ones, don’t have a room that would be big enough if all voters showed up.
Still, Randall isn’t convinced.
“Personally, I think it’s a great way to run a body of people, a government of the people, by the people, for the people. I would hate to see that form of government wash off the board. We gain the right for any citizen of a local place [to] have the right to go in and stand up and let their thoughts on various subject matters be known,” he said.
“I still firmly believe that it’s the most pure form of democracy. It’s a process that is quite old, dating back to the 1600s, and I think it is still as effective as it was back then,” Hanson said. “I think traditional town meeting, where you can debate the topics at hand, it’s where the rubber meets the road. To have a constructive conversation with your neighbors is a very good thing.”
A bit of mischief
Some towns even incorporate a bit of mischief into the proceedings.
Penny Palmer, assistant town clerk in Grantham, said they still hold fast to a tradition in that Sullivan County town: Every spring, some newlywed couple is surprised to learn they have been elected by the town meeting to the antiquated position of hog reeves, which dates to colonial times and is about as appealing as it sounds. The other old-fashioned position newlyweds are "honored" with in Grantham, Palmer said, is that of fence-viewer, a position that was empowered to settle fence disputes among neighbors, especially involving damage from livestock.
To contact Adam Drapcho, email AD@laconiadailysun.com.