Athenian Democracy in Small-Town New England

March is the best time of year for two breeds of animal--ducks, and small-town New England politicos. In March, you

March is the best time of year for two breeds of animal--ducks, and small-town New England politicos.

In March, you see, most of the towns surrounding Boston celebrate the spring by holding town meetings, an annual custom as old as the first settlements in the area. And if you're a government student bored of hearing professors drone on about "pure democracy" that's a fact you should take note of.

The town meeting is the closest thing left to the ancient Athenian assembly--direct rule by the residents of a town. It works like this: on one or more March nights, the inhabitants assemble in a local building (some towns have town halls, others make do with the high school gym). There they wrangle over local issues, listen to reports, choose committees, and cast their votes to determine just how the town should be run.

The tradition is a dying one. Nowhere outside New England are you likely to find such meetings, and even in this region, bigger towns and cities like Cambridge have switched to the more manageable mayor-city manager form of government.

But in the small towns, where politics is the liveliest game around, town meetings live on. The population has increased enough in some towns that the system has been modified--Lexington, for example, has representative town meetings, with 200 residents elected to speak for the other 35,000. Other smaller towns, like Bedford and Concord, still retain the pure "direct town meeting" form.

If you're wondering why anyone would bother to go to one of these get-togethers, you need to know a little more about the town meeting tradition. Mix Yankee stubborness and seriousness with a large measure of small town closeness, throw in the factional rivalries that spring up in every community and you often have an evening as worthwhile for a drama student as for a Government major. Attempts to widen roads can turn into philosophical debates over the rights of homeowners, and the rapidly mounting costs of education have triggered many a nostalgic reminiscence of the "old days."

And the meetings occasionally address more than local issues. A few years back, when Richard Nixon was still in office, the Lexington Town Meeting spent a good hour debating in all seriousness whether the Saturday Night Massacre of October, 1973 was enough reason not to invite him to the town for its annual Patriots Day celebration.

Town meetings have been criticized by many as a slow, unwieldy form of government, and they are. They come but once a year, and if a major issue arises at another time of the year the only recourse is to ignore it or call a special session.

The flip side, though is that the town meeting makes for a community actively involved in its own governance. The affairs of the town are laid out in the open, and a surprising number of residents show up to deal with them. Many towns across the country have people interested in politics, but nowhere do they have more chance to affect the bureaucratic process, albeit through a cranky microphone on a basketball court, than in the villages of New England.

Watching a town meeting can be mystifying - a basic item is the warrant which lists and describes the "articles" the meeting must vote on. Watching a town meeting without a warrant is as hopeless a task as trying to pick horses without a racing form, so sit next to someone with a sheaf of papers and ask to look on.

The other problem with going to town meetings is that once in a great while they can be slightly dull. If you don't find sewer easements thrilling, you will occasionally have to sit back and yawn.

There are solutions to this problem too. One is to call local newspapers to find out when that community's next hot meeting is likely to be. The other is to trust to luck but come prepared to deal with boredom. The most common solution is yarn; at every town meeting, but especially at the less interesting ones, New England Madame LaFarges churn out mile on mile of afghan and sweater.

You should have little trouble finding a town meeting to attend. Call local town halls, find out the details, and ask how to get there. You may find yourself more warmly received at the representative town meetings than at the direct sessions, since at the former there is less chance of your joining in the voting and awarding the Recreation Commission a new swimming pool or McDonald's an allnight franchise.