Last winter, spurred by discontent, I made my way to the town hall. I didn’t know where to stand, where I would find the sign-up sheet or quite where to look when I spoke into the small microphone. But it doesn’t take long to fall in line with the rhythms of a municipal meeting. It’s a scene as fascinating as it is frustrating, as enlightening as it is disappointing, a startling mix of civic failure and success — often in a single night — and I have continued to enter the meeting chambers with regularity ever since.
What first took me here was a collective effort to convince the Town Council to prohibit the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. (It was quite a ride, but last summer we succeeded.) What I experienced over many months compelled me to continue attending the Town Council meetings and to add others — the Planning Board, the Historic Preservation Commission, the Board of Education — all part of the connective tissue of our town’s six square miles and two ZIP codes. And it turns out, I can stream all of them from home, most on the town’s YouTube channel, which means on certain nights these meetings play out in my family’s kitchen.
Part theater, part dirge, occasionally part circus, the meetings on any given night fill with people arriving on their own or as part of small groups, united by a common cause. In time, themes appear: the Fire Department’s budget, a controversial development project, pedestrian safety, a dearth of senior services, cannabis licenses. Attend enough, and you come to recognize fellow regulars, exchange nods, smiles and eye rolls while you sit alongside one another, wait in a snaking public comment line or whisper in the hallway. Once, when a contentious meeting went late, someone, perhaps anticipating the rancor, passed out homemade cookies.
Municipal meetings are where the guts of a community spill out. In ours, the curved dais is the grounding structure of a stage for different players with different roles in making this town work (and not work). I’ve become familiar with quite a cast: the pragmatic, the apathetic, the insightful, the silent; those who know their stuff and those who leave me questioning how they got into their seats. A topic in one meeting can bleed into the next, where additional scrutiny is required by a different group, one that soon fills the dais and brings with it a different crowd. Sometimes a member of one board shows up at the meeting of another, like a TV crossover episode where you have to adjust to seeing cast members from separate shows share a screen. Agenda items boomerang, repeat and sometimes languish, as resolutions are made, votes cast.
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