March 4th, 2004

'Tis The Season for Democracy, Part 1

While the primary season is more or less over now that Edwards is out, you might be thinking that the early season for democracy has already come to a premature end, the way winter has been replaced by mud season here in New England, even though it's early days yet in March.

But that would be forgetting local government, the main participatory sport of New England.

Forget the Patriots (everyone else did, distracted by a white man ripping part of a shirt off a black woman in public). This is about town meetings and the school board.

Last night, the Hollis-Brookline Cooperative school district met to go over an ungodly number of warrants and other odds and ends. First order of business was to rationalize the order in which the warrants would be considered. There were two reasons for this. The first was because any sane person would want to know how Article 4 turned out before voting on 2 or 3, and we wouldn't even have to bother with 2 or 3 if 4 passed. This all revolves around what to do about the fact that the middle school has reached capacity, and it will only get worse over the next few years. The major options on the table were build a new school (and some suboptions there, regarding where to build that school, and whether to do it through the coop, or to dissolve the coop and revert to town's taking care of their own), renovate the existing school, or reduce the number of grades participating in the coop. While I realize my experience with rules of order is limited, I've never been around when the moderator was putting up powerpoint slides telling the group what motions he needed, and in what order. Wacky.

Then there was the hairy debate revolving around a warrant to amend the articles, to define the process by which grade reduction could occur, if that were at any point in the future, decided to be a good idea. This amendment is probably now in conflict with recently passed state law, but it passed anyway. It also had some confusing language about simple majority vs supermajority that got amended further (it did improve, slightly, but the underlying idea was misguided in the extreme. Essentially, it said to change the language of part of the article, or anything developed under it, like financial plans, you'd have to have a supermajority of 2/3rds. But it didn't say anything else at all about how the committee went about its business, and presumably they'd be the ones voting on the financial plans, right? If they think all of us get to vote, they're wrong -- the rest of the article clearly says all we get to do is rubberstamp or veto the whole thing the committee eventually presents us with. Makes no real sense. Whatever. I think the real point was to establish the size of the committee, and how many people from Hollis vs. Brookline would be on it.). Someone brought up to comment on the legality of the warrant, and whether the budget committee supported it or not, got confused and started talking about warrant 4, instead, and a point of order was belatedly called to put an end to it.

Oh, and it passed. With any luck, it won't ever be triggered, and thus won't be challenged and we won't have to pay any lawyers to figure out what it should mean.

Having survived that, we reached the meat of the meeting, so to speak. We heard arguments for the various proposals, tabled the votes (again, the moderator saying what motions were needed and proceeding). Finally, when discussion on article 4 (the renovation) was due to begin, a motion was made to open the polls for voting on it all day the next day (today), and after a ridiculous batch of amendments to that motion regarding the time which the polls would be open and when the continuation of this meeting would occur the next day (did you notice that? And if we hadn't done the rearrangement, we'd be guaranteed to be in that meeting 3 days, not just 2, and quite possibly more. Downright Wagnerian.).

Having decided that the polls would be open the next day, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and that the meeting would continue at 7 p.m., to give the officers from Brookline time to travel to the meeting in Hollis, a substantial percentage of the audience got up and left. It was, to be fair, almost 11 p.m. But on the other hand, in the name of making sure everyone got to vote on the renovation, essentially everyone walked out on the 25 minutes of discussion. This is democracy? Apparently.

After 25 minutes, discussion ended, and the polls opened. Roland and I voted and left. We will return this evening to find out what happened. This is why I call Democracy the major participatory sport in New England. Over 600 people showed up for this meeting. Ouch.

So what's it like, for those of you, like me, who have never experienced anything like this? Unlike public hearings held by city and county councils, it is necessary to communicate rules of order to hundreds of people who may or may not even understand that rules of order exist, and certainly have their own expectations of what the rules should be, based on their experience of previous moderators at the school board, and whoever moderates their town hall. Which means hundreds of people, some of whom are reading magazines, some of whom are on cell phones, many of whom are chatting, need to understand that motions, seconds, amendments, debates, etc. are happening, and then vote on them. You might think that you could blow off the ones who don't vote, or vote the wrong way, but when it isn't obvious which side carried the vote, you have to get the counters out and redo it, which is time consuming. That happened several times. Also, order problems arise. They were obvious with the warrants, but then there was that crap about the hours to have the polls open, when there was some question regarding whether people wanted them open at all, and trying to make those votes happen in a reasonable order was clearly a challenge. Some of these votes are close, too: 307 to 292. Your vote counts, when it comes to the hours the polls will be open, apparently. Public hearings as I've experienced them in Seattle/King County are more or less an extended discussion period. The only other relevant experience I have involves board meetings, and home owners association meetings. They're so much smaller, that even with a language barrier, a hearing problem, or, best of all, both at the same time, it's possible to keep everyone on top of whatever is currently being voted on.

All of this is happening in a school gym, so those of us not sitting on folding chairs (with tennis balls stuck to the feet, and a protective fabric laid over the whole floor -- these people take their gym floors almost as seriously as they take their democracy) are sitting on the bleachers. Ouch. Four and a half fucking hours with no back rest and inadequate legroom. I haven't had an experience like that since I used to be a Jehovah's Witness, attending district conventions. And even there, there were songs to stand up for and intermissions to stretch your legs. On the good side, here they don't give a shit if you read a novel through the entire meeting.

Voting on the serious issues (like warrant 4, the renovation) is by ballot. You get a slip of paper with a yes side and a no side. You rip it in half, and dump your answer in the box. Whatever you do, don't throw the other side away anywhere near a poll, because nothing prevents it from being voted and canceling your ballot. Voting on the equally serious, but more frequent stuff is done by raising a hand holding a colored index card. I saw a woman holding half of one up. I thought about complaining. Maybe she'd shared the other half with someone else (unlikely. She probably used the other half as scrap paper for a friend at the meeting). There's the usual array of people flanking the moderator who are up to present their bits, and there's the line at the podium for us peons.

And in a few hours, I get to go back and put in another 4 hours on the bleachers, part of the n-way sport called Democracy in southern New Hampshire. Apparently, as is the case with most sports, stamina is an important trait for those who want to win.
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