How to make ice in a democracy
The “Frost Heaves” signs peppered over the roads are both a welcome and a warning. They are the result of the seasonal quarrel between warm and cold weather, thawing and freezing and expanding and contracting soil. Change is often a bumpy road. The conflict between past and present faces off each spring at town meetings across the region. It is, after all, when we gather together as equals to settle disputes, set priorities, and govern our own affairs.
The root of this philosophy is based on a keen understanding of human nature, power and history. It was here in the rural outposts of colonial New England where town meeting took hold. The early settlers chose to leave the relative comforts of the populated towns to venture into the wilderness. Far from the centralized powers of the king and his regional henchmen, these tiny grants had to take care of themselves and, along the way, became bastions of democracy.
It has worked remarkably well in small towns for nearly 400 years. As communities grow larger, the strains on the system increase.
Several towns this year considered changes to their town meeting process. Voters faced with such prospects should proceed with care and be mindful of the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes: “An ounce of history is worth a pound of logic.”
Change that is in line with our fundamental ideals is sometimes necessary to strengthen our sacred systems. The early town meetings denied vast numbers of people suffrage, but each subsequent generation extended the right to vote to more groups.
Up until the 1940s, residents were routinely denied the right to vote if they received any government assistance. Names of paupers and the assistance they received were printed in the town report. These changes strengthened the ideal of democracy and permitted greater voter participation.
In Whitefield, the selectmen proposed the town treasurer be an appointed rather than an elected position. They also requested that the powers of the cemetery trustees be delegated to them. These proposals were part of a larger trend to centralize power in the hands of selectmen and town managers and away from elected officials chosen by and answerable to the voters.
While these changes have been made in the name of progress, reason and efficiency, there is a less subtle message, which is politics is a bad, unseemly thing.
The historical function of the town treasurer is not only to keep an eye on the money, but also on the selectmen. This position must be independent from the selectmen to carry out their oversight authority.
Likewise, the cemetery trustees are responsible for the management of the town’s cemeteries. Our forefathers understood the need to delegate responsibilities widely to many people. More hands do make lighter work, but it also grows and grooms future town leaders. In addition, it ensures low-profile jobs are earnestly, enthusiastically carried out.
Without a lively constituency, the cemeteries would be neglected. Selectmen typically are consumed with the most urgent problems, like the tax rate.
A regular bone of contention in Whitefield has been the inability of the town to transform the picturesque common into a winter skating rink. This responsibility has reluctantly fallen on the beleaguered highway department. With record snowfall, the highway crew has properly tended to the roads, not the common.
Recently, two townsmen took it upon themselves to flood the common so that children could enjoy skating during their February vacation. Making ice is not difficult. Like a successful democracy, it takes an underlying faith in the people, a suspicion of government at any level and a little cold weather.
Jeff Woodburn of Whitefield teaches social studies at White Mountains Regional High School and assists in his family restaurant, the Woodburn House.