Matinicus Island Town Meeting
We’re getting ready for the Annual Town Meeting of the municipality of Matinicus Isle Plantation, an entirely humorless gathering always held on the last Saturday of April. In some ways the event might remind one of the Norman Rockwell “Freedom of Speech” painting from the “Four Freedoms” series. This well-known image from the 1940’s may or may not have been inspired by a New England Town Meeting, but it certainly resembles one. A man in work clothes stands up among his better-dressed neighbors and speaks his mind, an annual town report stuffed into his pocket.
Anybody who’s ever done that knows that it isn’t always easy.
Town meeting, where each item of the next year’s proposed municipal budget is discussed if necessary and voted upon by as much of the “town” as wishes to appear, can be a bit anti-climactic. A couple of weeks of anxiety and stomach acid go into preparing for what sometimes is a simple procedural rubberstamping. Town officials and project boosters try to anticipate questions; they organize their arithmetic and muster their supporters. In some cases, three or four dozen Matinicus voters and a handful of taxpaying summer residents gather peacefully, eat a doughnut, raise their hands to move the warrant items along smoothly, and save the unanswerable questions for the “other business” section at the end. On the other hand, some years the potential exists for real fireworks.
I don’t believe that this year the schoolteacher will need to tape up the large windows of the schoolroom in anticipation of thrown furniture.
A few things never change, from year to year, regardless of whether or not there happen to be any truly contentious issues on the warrant. Many of the good folks here have always felt that proper conduct at town meeting means that they refuse to sit in the school chairs, set up in rows by the clerk for the voters, but instead should stand in the back, as near the doorway as possible, with arms folded and a permanent scowl affixed to their face. It is required of the serious taxpayer that he appear only reluctantly in attendance, perhaps only there for certain parts of the meeting, and not interested in the routine boilerplate. He must appear visibly skeptical--no, more than that—he wants to look genuinely angered by whatever is being proposed. This does not mean that he will vote against the item, but rather, he does not wish his neighbors to think him at ease. He does not wish to be publicly recognized as in favor of spending money for anything at all, of changing anything, of interacting too willingly with regulatory agencies or summer people or politicians or experts from out of town.
There are sound historical reasons for that reticence. Still, sometimes it’s more theater than real concern, more a matter of tradition or image than any studied dissatisfaction with some particular expense the town is considering.
You see, we spend very, very little money as compared with any other town around here. We spend almost nothing on things the voters cannot actually see. We have no debt, no complex layers of administration, no consultants, and no ridiculously gold-plated requirements (and it is that last bit that some of us, me included, tend to really worry about). Tax dollars go primarily to running the school, for which we receive almost nothing from the state (this contrary to widespread assumption. Visitors to the island sometimes think it is the state of Maine that is sending our children to private high schools. No.) Beyond that, we tax for maintenance of a few miles of dirt road, a half-dozen almost-volunteer elected officials, the insurances we must carry, a low-budget recycling program, a rudimentary fire department and whatever efforts toward improved public works seem to be on the list that year (this time, it’s the airstrip). We run old, secondhand trucks, we rely on a good deal of volunteer hours and expertise, we approach new projects with a singular trepidation and we promise nobody the moon.
Our tax rate is actually pretty reasonable (and I am a known cheapskate).
It is still necessary to go to the meeting and scowl. It is absolutely necessary that people show up. It takes a lot of work to make things around here look easy. It takes a lot of that customary skepticism to beat back all the “good ideas” that cost too much. Sometimes people, like the man in the iconic Rockwell painting, stand up and speak truth to power. Sometimes they sit in the back and make wise-aleck remarks. Some try to stuff the ballot box, audibly instructing their sternmen how to vote. Some have the courage to speak for something New and Different that might actually be justified. Some just sound like an idiot. We are all entitled to do that as well.
There will be no bean supper before the vote, as some towns offer, and no Boy Scouts selling refreshments, and, more importantly, no discussion of the detailed school budget (that is a separate meeting). Back when I was clerk I used to make coffee, but we’ll have to see about that now. With any luck, people will show up willing to relax a bit, willing to speak up, willing to call it as they see it, and willing to shut up and listen. I hope we will do the math and keep an eye on the bills but also think beyond our own pocketbooks. It is not easy. Nobody goes to this annual assembly for the fun of it. I tend to get bristly, and maybe talk too much, and sometimes express my disrespect a bit too readily. I’ll try to do better.
Most of us enjoy a good funeral a lot more than we do town meeting.
The idea of even holding a town meeting is really pretty cool, when you think about it. Not many municipalities outside this area still do it. This particular community is also one of the few not overwhelmed by the “let me tell you how we do things back in the big city” crowd. We get a few holier-than-thou types and a few overeager seasonal people, but nothing like many Maine towns. We’ve got a good system. I shall endeavor to be grateful.
** Eva Murray is planning on attending the meeting wearing her “You are Not the Boss of Me” T-shirt. It’s a Matinicus thing.