Tonight I covered a New Hampshire town meeting for the newspaper. Small towns in New Hampshire and Vermont still follow the old form of direct democracy – one person, one vote, sitting in a town hall to discuss and vote on budgets and other municipal issues. It’s a time-honored tradition that holds a very dear place in my heart, and yet over the past 10 years I have become increasingly jaded about it.
In 2003, I had returned home and was living in the small New Hampshire town where I grew up. I worked off and on at the Town Offices, so I knew almost everyone who worked for the town, including the policemen and firemen. I felt like I was a part of the fabric of the community. And yet there were tensions under the surface that seemed to somehow involve the police department. I never quite understood what was going on – it didn’t involve me and I didn’t want to ask a lot of questions about something that felt dark and hot, even from a distance. I still don’t know and I still don’t want to.
What I do know is that one night in 2003 one of our police officers and a young local man ended up dead. It was a horrifying time for our town and the tensions that had been boiling below the surface for years suddenly erupted very publicly. The town was divided along invisible fault lines, and lawyers and entertainment seekers from out of town seemed to take perverse pleasure in fanning the flames.
I didn’t have a “side”. But I felt that even not taking a side put me in someone’s poor graces. It was a loss of innocence for our town that I still mourn. After 9/11 people talked about finding a “new normal”. I suppose my childhood home has found a “new normal” since the incident. But even 8 years later there is still anger that can be touched off by a few misplaced words.
That anger was so palpable – and so quick to surface – that I found it hard to attend our annual town meetings. It felt like people were looking for a reason to fight and I didn’t want to be in the middle of it. I battled between my sense of civic responsibility and my desire to stay out of the war zone. After a year or two, staying out of the war zone won.
Which brings me back to tonight. I haven’t been to a town meeting in about five years. When the paper assigned me to cover a town meeting a few minutes up the road, I was nervous – what would I find there? Would all of those underlying tensions and easily-sparked anger be alive in that meeting as well?
As it turned out, the meeting tonight was one of the most civil and enjoyable meetings I have ever attended. There was only one moment tonight when I felt a spark of contention fly, and even in that moment I felt like people were fighting FOR the their town instead of AGAINST each other. There was a love for the town and a respect for the people that was a joy to watch.
At the end of the meeting, various townspeople stood up to thank the road crew for doing an exemplary job during a difficult winter; the fire chief for taking advantage of large amounts of federal funding; and even the person who organized the dinner for town employees before the meeting. As the last point of business, there was a great laugh when it was revealed that Barack Obama had received a single vote to serve as Overseer of Town Welfare.
To the moderator, the selectmen, and the townspeople of Sugar Hill – thank you for helping restore my faith in the truest form of democracy. I am grateful beyond words.