Grass Roots Democracy, 1948 Version

The Crime Goes to Town Meeting

March means town meeting time throughout New England. Since 1632, people of the colonies, and then the towns, have gathered in regular assemblies to exercise the democratic function of governing themselves.

Last week, in Calais, Vermont (population 818), the voters of town gathered in the meeting house at Gospel Hollow to name their officers, vote their taxes, and consider the condition of their schools and roads. In addition to settling these governmental matters, the meeting was (as it usually is) is the occasion for an annual winter picnic.

To divide the day-long session in half, the people spent two hours over the dinner table heaped with meat, beans, salads, brown bread, pie, and coffee. Here they exchanged the latest gossip, talked about taxes, fire protection, and the price of milk. Then they went back upstairs to the meeting hall, the moderator called the meeting to order again and election of officers took place.

The Long Ballot

The long list of town officers has been reduced considerably since the days when the people elected a tithingham, herdsman, drummer, and horgreeve. Yet, the voter is still faced with far from a short ballot, for he must choose 16 men to guide the destiny of Calais during 1948--moderator, clerk, selectmen, school directors, auditors, listers, trustees of public funds, cemetery commissioners, overseers of the poor, road commissioner, constable, law agent, grand, juror, health officer, truant officer, and the local old age officer.


The moderator, who presides at town meeting, was named first of all. This year he is again the town representative in the state legislature, Harrison Fowler. Then, the town clerk was elected. He is paid $300 per year for his job of recording deeds, collecting license fees, and in general keeping all town accounts. He is also given a percentage of the property taxes and the dog license fees for his trouble. But he must maintain the busy office in his own home.

Although the meeting was scheduled to start at 10 o'clock, it was nearly 11 before the moderator rapped for order, and the men of town got things started while many of their waves busied themselves down stairs preparing dinner.

Shall Liquor Be Sold?

When it came time to vote on whether or not Calais should grant licenses "for the sale of malt and vinous beverages" or for "spiritous liquors," the women left their stoves and filed past the ballot box too. They know the men will agree to grant licenses if they don't appear to outvote them. The only time the town voted in favor of selling liquor, no merchant took out a license.

After choosing the moderator, accepting the annual reports, and deciding the liquor question (a negative vote as usual, this year), the citizens of Calais proceeded to other business as listed on the agenda, which is called a "warning."

"To see if the town will authorize the selectmen to borrow money if needed to pay the current expenses of the town." (The town decided to do this.)

"To see if the town will vote a sum of money for the proper observance of Memorial Day." (As usual, $25 was allowed.)

"To see if the town will appropriate a sum of money to be used for school health clinics." ($200 was voted.)

Taxes, Taxes . . .

The all-important issue of property taxes was next to be considered. Last year, when it came time to have town meeting, the 92 miles of town roads were so badly drifted with snow that it was decided to raise the tax and buy a new $12,000 snow plow. There was much agitation this year to reduce the tax from its all-time high of $6 per $100 of assessed valuation.

It was finally voted to allot $1.40 of each $100 valuation to the selectmen to carry out their administrative duties during the year; $2 for schools; $1.20 for the roads; 40 cents for the poor; and 50 cents for the town debt--a total of $5.50. Even though this still represents a substantial increase over the more usual $4 tax rate, the citizens of Calais took another look at their new snow plow and willingly agreed.

By 4 o'clock, it had begun to snow again and the end of the warning had been reached, so the moderator adjourned town meeting for another year. The citizens of Calais, proud of New England's peculiar institution and generally pleased with the outcome of the elections, filed out of the Gospel Hollow meeting house and went home to do the chores before it got dark.