Paul Doton has been an animator at Barnard for 30 years, and his father was an animator before him.
When he took the hammer in the early 1990s, Doton said, Town Meeting was an event.
“At that time, there were over 100 people who came to Town Meeting,” he said. The Progressive Club sold out lunch between the town and school parts of the reunion, student scholarships were announced, whole families attended, and people took the day off. The townspeople decided the budgets, but the meeting was also a social occasion, something not to be missed.
“That’s not happening now,” Doton said.
Barnard’s meeting from last year was rescheduled for May and drew around 30 people. This year, held last Tuesday, drew over 60, not bad, but not exactly a record day.
A form of government unique to New England, Town Meeting is an exercise in community building. What Doton sees in Barnard is cause for concern about the health of the institution.
It used to go with the character of the area, small towns cushioned by small farms. After settling in for the winter, residents braved the weather and the roads to mix business and catch up.
“It’s just not the agricultural context it was,” Doton said, noting that when he became moderator there were eight to 10 dairy farms in town and now there are two, the farm Doton being one of them. People who move to Barnard often seek solitude, not community. The coronavirus pandemic has something to do with it.
Barnard is now part of a unified school district that votes in the Australian ballot. (It’s the one-day secret ballot used for state and national elections.) So the annual meeting may seem less critical.
But the call of the reunion lives on, in part because democracy elsewhere feels more fragile, and because there’s nothing else like it.
“It hasn’t changed, but it’s become, I think, I feel more important, because people feel like democracy is unraveling,” said Kelly Green, who has facilitated meetings at Randolph since 2011.
“A fundamental feature of Town Meeting that makes it a great exercise is that it requires those in attendance to practice speaking and listening,” Green said. “It’s good. I love Town Meeting.
Just before the pandemic, Randolph moved its Town Meeting to the Saturday before the traditional meeting day of the first Tuesday in March, hoping to increase attendance. In-person meetings canceled this year and last made it impossible to assess whether that decision helped, Green said.
There’s no doubt Town Meeting has changed over the years, but it’s an enduring institution, said Steve Taylor, who served as a Plainfield moderator for 30 years until 2011.
“That has certainly changed as the population has grown and more and more people are not native to the tradition,” said Taylor, who also served as New Hampshire’s commissioner of agriculture. But new residents are coming to Town Meeting “and they’re sold on it,” he said.
Plainfield has held its town and school meetings on separate days for decades, but this year they will be held on the same day, with the school meeting at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning and the town meeting at 1 p.m. (both meetings were called last year, when they were held in June, under a tent.)
To build the community spirit of Town Meeting Day, “it takes food,” Taylor said, whether it’s a lunch hosted by a community group or even just coffee and pastries.
“I’ve always watched that dynamic with great interest,” Taylor said.
In an oral history of Plainfield, a resident named Ralph Jordan spoke of attending a town meeting in the 1890s. Attendance at the time was restricted to men, Taylor said. They were spreading sawdust on the floor because so many of them were chewing tobacco. They ordered raw oysters and drank whiskey.
“’At noon,’ he said, ‘it was like a hall full of young bulls. Everyone would try to knock each other down,” Taylor said.
Plainfield now hosts an average of 200 to 250 people at Town Meeting each year, Taylor said. As a percentage of the checklist, “I have to say it’s gone down,” he added.
“I’m a solid and loyal defender” of Town Meeting, he said. “He is unrivaled at enabling in-depth discussion, forcing people on both sides of an issue to listen to each other and come to a decision.”
It also gives ordinary people the opportunity to put their creativity to use in the governance of the city.
“What I want people to understand is that individuals in our communities have real power to run municipal government,” Green said. If someone has an idea, they can write it down and put it on the meeting notice (this is called a warrant in New Hampshire). Then, at the meeting, the issue will be discussed and, surprisingly, voted for or against.
“You don’t have to wait for the city manager or the selection committee to do anything,” Green said. “You don’t have to wait for the government to act.”
In 2012, the year after Tropical Storm Irene devastated Bethel, voters twice prevented the adjournment of their city assembly because they felt their officials had not heard what they were saying. It was an example of community building in the midst of the work of approving budgets and electing leaders.
All kinds of community events have struggled during the pandemic. Each year, Ferme Doton organizes a community picnic for the neighbours. They invite 100 and get about 60. And in East Barnard, across town, the community hall went silent.
“People don’t feel comfortable in that social setting like they used to,” Doton said.
When that comfort returns, maybe Town Meeting will too.
Alex Hanson can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3207.