When, in some obscure country town, the farmers come together to a special town-meeting, to express their opinion on some subject which is vexing the land, that, I think, is the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States. (Henry David Thoreau)
Take a moment to appreciate the wonderfulness that is Town Meeting. I’m serious.
Needham Town Meeting has met in an unbroken sequence for 312 years, and counting. For 312 years, you and your neighbors have gotten together to discuss and solve the town’s problems – logistical problems that shape our environment, like how to fix the roads; and the societal issues that shape our community, like whether to sell liquor or build affordable housing.
Despite (or because of) its longevity, Town Meeting has changed greatly over the years. In the 19th century, TM was an extension of church. Church membership was a form of citizenship, so it was expected that all “eligible voters” (more about that later) would be in church. For these folks, the “Separation of Church and State” was a phrase entirely without meaning. When service was over, the Moderator would take the pulpit, and the routine housekeeping of the town would be discussed – repairs, additions, fines, etc. These meetings could take place every couple of weeks. Annual Town Meeting met in March, also in the Meeting House, and it was at this meeting that the town officers were elected, the tax rates were set, and the large policy issues were resolved. TM was an extension of church until the 1834, when MA law finally separated the two, and town affairs became purely secular.
For Needham’s first hundred years, the right to vote in TM was allowed only to “Freeholders and other Inhabitants… Qualified by law to Vote in Town meetings Such as pay to one Single tax besides the Poll or Polls a Sum equal to a Single Poll Tax.” In other words, males over the age of 21 who held a certain amount of taxable property. Needless to say, this privileged the founding families who had been here longest. In 1811, Needham’s centennial, there were 207 men on the eligible voter list, 25% of which were either Kingsburys, Smiths, or Fullers.
In 1821, the property requirement was abolished and the voter rolls expanded. A voter was required to pay the poll tax and had to be resident in town for at least a year to be eligible to vote, but smaller landowners and leaseholders now became eligible as long as they could pay the tax.
Women, of course, were not eligible to vote in TM. The right to vote in School Committee elections was extended to women in 1882, but proposals in 1882 and again in 1883 to allow women to vote in all municipal elections did not pass. Women could not vote in TM until 1920, when they won the right to vote in all elections.
The next major change in TM came in the 1930s, when the Meeting went from Open TM to Representative TM. In Open TM, any eligible voter could attend and vote. As the town grew in size, this became a practical challenge. Instead, the town was divided into equal precincts, and each precinct had a designated number of representatives. These people were elected by the members of the precinct to represent them in TM. That is the system we still use today – ten precincts (A through J), each with 24 members elected for three-year terms.
Since the institution is more than 300 years old, it could be tempting to believe that Town Meeting has become antiquated and obsolete. In my opinion (which is NEVER humble!), you could not be more wrong. TM is the purest form of democracy and representative self-governance. The decisions that govern your property, your schools, your taxes, and your daily life are made in TM. Everyone has the opportunity to speak in TM, even if s/he is not an elected member. Everyone has the right to place an article in the Warrant for debate and consideration – all you need is 10 neighbors to agree with you and sign your petition. Within your precinct, it is likely that you personally know several of your representatives, and can go to them if you have an issue or an opinion. You can volunteer for one of the many boards and committees that manage town affairs, or you could run for office on one of the elected boards. If there is something you want to do or change, the way is wide open to you. No complaining and no excuses.
That is the essential beauty of Town Meeting – that it allows us to be involved, and it requires us to be involved. Needham has been, for more than 300 years, a DIY town. Although professional managers have been hired to manage the implementation, all municipal offices, town committees and boards, are staffed by elected or appointed Needham volunteers. It is therefore crucial to the health of the town’s civic structure that people are engaged and committed to maintaining this involvement. Unlike many of the surrounding towns where TM vacancies can be as high as 50%, Needham fills its 240 seats and often with competition for them. Yes, it takes a little more work on our part, but the tradeoff is that we each get strong voice in the decisions that shape our daily lives.
It is all too common to feel alienated from our government, to believe that “the opposition” is in power (or soon will be), or that “no one in government cares about people like me.” Town Meeting is exactly the opposite – it is You, and people like You. We are our town government. Annual Town Meeting is in session this week, and Thank You to all the TM Members, town officials, boards and commissions that take part.
For the 312th consecutive year, Needhamites are gathering to make the decisions that shape the town’s present and future. Needham’s true, and most respectable Congress.
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum