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The Tyranny Of Town Meetings

OUR little town had a procedural hang-up in annual town meeting this year, and during the day our moderator telephoned to seek advice from a lawyer at the Maine Municipal Association in Augusta, the state capital. So have the basics of Down-East democracy eroded, and I thought of Grampie Oakes and his dual capacity as superintendent of schools in both Yarmouth and Freeport. These two towns, back in the 1920s, were about of a size, adjacent. A cross-country electric trolley line served with cars each way every hour.

Money could be saved by letting one man work for both towns, and for some years Grampie Oakes ran the two separate school systems with schizophrenic success and both towns were glad. He had the knack of being in two places at once, so to speak, and his only real difficulty was in appearing simultaneously at both town meetings, which came on the second Monday of March. But Freeport would postpone the school ``articles'' until Yarmouth had acted and wait for Grampie Oakes to arrive.

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I know not why he was called Grampie. He had a featherstitch gait, so he advanced like a child evading cracks in a sidewalk, and seemed always to be trying to catch up. The Freeport moderator, Mr. Pinkham, would see Grampie Oakes arriving by the town house door. He would say, ``Mr. Oakes has arrived; we'll resume with postponed Article 18, and the chair recognizes Mr. Oakes!''

Then Freeport would consider all the school business. And this was back when towns did that. Today school taxes are oligarchied by a statehouse formula and no town meeting really knows if it has schools or not. Mr. Oakes answered questions and offered advice. But there was an interesting parliamentary point involved in his appearances. Mr. Oakes lived and kept his residence in Freeport, and was ``an inhabitant qualified to vote in town affairs.'' In Freeport, he belonged. But he did not belo ng in Yarmouth, and before he could take part in that town's meeting somebody had to arise, address the chair, and ask for ``unanimous consent to hear the gentleman.''

The elitism of town meeting was precious and not to be lightly handled. Mr. Oakes, knowledgeable in the parliamentary amenities, always began his Yarmouth remarks with, ``Thank you - it is always a pleasure....'' In Freeport he didn't have to thank anybody.

There was one notable year when Grampie Oakes made a boo-boo. For the first time, ``physical training'' was proposed in the school budget. In both towns. When Grampie Oakes arrived in Freeport and that article was presented, somebody wanted to know what physical training might be, anyway. We still had folks around who felt after-school chores would give a boy all the appetite he needed. Mr. Oakes responded. He said this was a new idea, and he was hopeful it would augment the educational program. He said the fund would be ``matched'' by the state, so there was double value.

The subject included calisthenics in the classrooms, plus instruction in brushing teeth and cleaning fingernails, as well as general hygiene. Then he said, ``The town of Yarmouth has already accepted this, and I feel we should follow suit.''

Then Oliver Ringrose stood up. Oliver could be counted on for an annual glad moment in town meeting. He was witty and wise, and his judgment respected. He now filled the town hall with his booming, ``Mr. Moderator!''

Mr. Pinkham said, ``The chair recognizes Mr. Ringrose - give your attention to Mr. Ringrose!'' Ollie said, ``Why do we folks in Freeport need to know what they do over in Yarmouth?'' It was several years before Freeport embraced physical training.

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So when our moderator consulted an out-of-town lawyer to set things straight, olden times were recalled and a pang set in for the way things have curdled. A lawyer in Augusta has no standing in our town meeting, and neither do the voters in Yarmouth. No town meeting has to do anything it doesn't want to do, and the only appeal is to the voters themselves.

On town meeting day there is no higher authority. But eternal vigilance, the price of liberty, has been lax of late, and facility with the rules of order seems a lost virtue. A bewildered town does let outsider lawyers opinionate, and sadly listens. Times have changed. There is the essence of tyranny in today's town-meeting democracy. Pity: For a long time it was a fine idea.

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