Hingham Town Meeting

I attended my very first Hingham Town Meeting last night. I remember hearing something about this form of government in a political science class at Tufts University but never really believed it existed.  I do now; although the jury’s still out on Proportional Representation (if you get that reference you’re either a policy wonk or a fellow poly sci major).

I wasn’t sure what to expect but was preparing myself for a big dose of New England democratic fervor. Call me a Tory but “open mic night” as a form of governance scares me. Or perhaps I’m just imagining what would happen if Diocesan Convention ruled the town.

After registering (they don’t want any interlopers from Cohasset crashing the party I guess), the first thing I noticed when I walked in was the heat. Sitting in an uncomfortable plastic chair in the Hingham High School gymnasium only added to the ambiance. And that’s before things even started to heat up. On the docket was the most controversial issue of the year: putting lights on an athletic field.

As I said in Sunday’s sermon “in some ways, how great is it to live in a community where lights on an athletic field seem to be our biggest problem?  We don’t have to worry about roach infested schools or prostitution in the streets or the fact that a huge percentage of the world will go to bed hungry tonight. Or do we?” With parishioners passionate on both sides of the lighting issue, I was politically savvy enough not to wade into the fray from the pulpit. I was simply calling for a little perspective.

The other thing I noticed in the moments leading up to the opening gavel was the electricity in the room. It was part anxious buzz and part cocktail party as everyone seemed to know at least half the people in the room. There were certainly a bunch of parishioners in attendance.

I quickly got the sense that many of the same people speak at every meeting – another parallel with Diocesan Convention (you know who you are! — though you’re probably not reading my blog). The Town Moderator has held the position for something like 50 years. He was a gray-haired gentleman wearing a bow tie. In other words he was straight out of central casting.

Did the whole experience it restore my faith in humanity? I’m not sure about that. But it was kind of fun to watch democracy in action. It’s not neat and tidy; quite the opposite. Kind of like our individual faith lives, when you think about it.

It did restore my faith in boredom but in an I-can’t-avert-my-eyes kind of way. The time limit on speakers is ten minutes. Ten minutes! In my book that’s a sermon. Though no one slams down a gavel at the one minute mark. They may do this mentally, of course.

In a town of 20,000 it would probably be more efficient to have a mayor and board. I think Hingham is just about the largest town that still has the Town Meeting form of government. Obviously it began when the town was much smaller. Who knows how long this will continue? But in the meantime it feels like stepping back in time; like we’re all re-enactors of democracy like you’d see in Colonial Williamsburg or at Plymouth Plantation.

For the record, the proposal did not pass — it needed a 2/3 majority because it’s a zoning issue (according to the guy who sat next to me). If you’re interested, and I’d be shocked if you weren’t, you can read all about it in the Hingham Journal.


One Comment on “Hingham Town Meeting”

  1. Bob Chapman says:

    When I think of direct democracy (as opposed to representative democracy), I’m reminded of how the California and Washington state legislatures can’t deal with taxation issues. Both of those bodies know there will be an initiative or referendum, no matter what they do.

    It makes it easier for legislators to do nothing and not risk the bad publicity when it is time for re-election.


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