Norman Rockwell, the famous artist, told many wonderful stories with his paintings. One of my favorites is the picture of a New England town meeting with a man speaking his mind. It is the famous “Freedom of Speech” part of his “Four Freedoms” series. (See above.) People are listening, looking at the grizzled speaker in work clothes with the town’s annual report in his pocket, paying attention to what Rockwell acknowledges was an unpopular position the man was espousing. He had the floor; he had the right to his opinion.
As a young boy growing up in Massachusetts, I would go to occasional town meetings with my father. I don’t really have much memory of it other than they were discussing arcane topics like budgets or zoning or traffic patterns.
As someone who has concentrated on national politics and occasional forays into local D.C. campaigns, it had been a long time since I attended a New England town meeting. But last Saturday, while up at our summer home in Westport Point, Massachusetts, I spent a few hours of a lovely Saturday afternoon in the high school auditorium observing the town meeting.
I learned a lot, not just about the budget woes of a small town or the political divisions that existed, but the town’s concerns for an injured firefighter and a young girl of 16 who was taken from the community in a tragic car accident. I saw a community that was doing its best to cope with the problems people face in any city or town.
I was truly impressed with the town moderator in Westport, Steven Fors, who gives of his time and skills for no pay and who ran the meeting with extraordinary care, respect and discipline. Members of the finance committee, chaired by my friend “Buzzy” Baron, a former law professor at Boston College, all gave countless hours and incredible skills as volunteers to help the town.
It is not easy. More money for the schools was rejected in a recent election and the school teachers and parents stood as one to propose they try again and gave an impassioned defense of their community. They weren’t about to give up or give in.
People disagreed. People stood at microphones to ask tough questions. People studied the reams of paper on town budgets and made motions to add or to cut. People were open and they were respectful.
In a town where an experienced administrator had just resigned because of intense infighting, the meeting was an important event. The administrator had written, “I will pray every day that Town Officials find a way to work together to resolve the financial and interpersonal issues that so often block progress in the town.” This could be said of Topeka, of Tuscaloosa, of Trenton, or, of course, of Washington, D.C.
But the very fact that the age-old tradition of open town meetings still exists or that our Congress or state legislatures are places where people can speak their minds with a common purpose tells us something.
Civility and community are important in our politics. The freedom of speech that Rockwell depicted in his painting is alive and well in Westport, Massachusetts. The more chances people get to participate in and be a part of working to solve tough, knotty problems, the more uplifting the process of governing will become.
For me, it was a Saturday afternoon well spent.