Town meeting: Enclave of democracy, siege mentality

Wellfleet’s recent town meeting, held outdoors at the Elementary School ball field, over six hours of a fine Saturday, was both sobering and refreshing (in no particular order.)

Our town has troubles: widely publicized fiscal incompetence, housing prices ridiculously out of the reach of the sort of young people who might want to settle here, town workers quitting faster than they can be replaced, and reportedly a growing reputation of being a bad town to work for.

In recent years vacancies on boards and committees have gone unfilled, citizens apparently no longer feeling as responsible for doing the work of running the town. (The proposed creation of one new board was voted down because, it was argued, it would be hard to find people to serve on it.)

But we still know how to put on a town meeting, that essential element of a New England town’s life. This enactment of direct democracy was of course especially refreshing given the national mood regarding the basics of democracy. As contrasted with the fiasco of the partisan Arizona voodoo re-count, the refreshing transparency of the raising of hands with their voter cards , and in the case of close calls, appointed tellers– one’s friends and neighbors– making the rounds , among us, with their clickers.

Presiding over the rituals of this primal democracy was our passionate, meticulous moderator, who obviously cares a lot about the essential details of this process. For those in attendance there’s a comforting feeling of being well-shepherded.

Nationally the GOP is doing everything in its power to discourage people from voting. Here it’s the other way around: we plead with residents to come to town meeting to perform the basic right and duty of functioning as the town’s legislature. Unfortunately most do not. The attendance is often only ten around percent of the total number of registered voters. And it’s not a representative ten percent, but skewed heavily toward retirees and other elders free to come to do the work of the town. It’s a problem.

Nevertheless, it is always worth attending town meeting if only to see and greet all the other usual suspects, and this time there was perhaps an added dimension of a shared sense of being an enclave of direct democracy in a world grown more hostile to it.

There was a circle-the-wagons feeling of our town being under siege as never before by economic forces beyond our control. The poignancy and desperation of the moment was caught in a comment by a selectboard member in a pitch for one of the save-our-town warrant items: “There’s all this big money coming in, we are getting McMansionized, and we won’t be here for long [having died out or been driven away by market forces] but we can at least stand up for our values” by voting for the proposal under debate.

In addition to chauvinistic t-shirts in evidence (“Fleetian,” “Fleetian Wannabe”), most of the big warrant items had to do with self-preservation of the town as a real town, of a way of life: establishing a real estate transfer tax to help fund affordable housing. Increasing the tax rate on short-term rentals. Approving a sewage treatment plan for the already approved 40 unit affordable housing project. Amending zoning laws to encourage the creation of year-round rentals in such desperately short supply.

One of the items enthusiastically voted in was the “Right to Farm Bylaw”. Most of the provisions of this bylaw were already encoded in zoning (who knew we could have horses and cows in our residential-feeling neighborhoods?) so this bylaw was as much attitude as anything, to let would-be outside buyers know that this town is not just a tourist destination. “Yeah, Mr. Secondhome Buyer, Mr. Potential Investor, you or your renter could end up vacationing next to the local version of a cattle ranch or pig farm.”

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