Editorial: Land of the Free Staters
Democracy is by nature a messy process, sacrificing as it does efficiency for the greater virtue of mass participation in self-government. Given that New England Town Meeting is about as pure a form of democracy as there is, it stands to reason that it would be the messiest. And then there’s the town of Grafton, where in recent years Town Meeting has resembled nothing so much as a long-form circus.
As staff writer Sarah Brubeck reported in the Sunday Valley News, this year’s deliberative session — during which voters review and can amend warrant articles in preparation for voting in March — convened at 9 a.m. and lasted about 11 hours. Despite their heavy investment of time, residents made no major changes to the 30 warrant articles.
That does not mean, however, that the deliberative session lacked entertainment value. For example, “Rules of Decorum” promulgated by Town Moderator Susan Frost, which prohibited cursing, name calling and personal attacks, were the subject of extensive debate, with Planning Board Chairman Brian Fellers objecting that they infringed on his First Amendment rights. Ultimately the rules remained in place, although Fellers did not. He was later escorted from the meeting by police after interrupting several times other speakers debating whether another resident was qualified to vote.
Fellers did not by any means go gentle into that good night. As Brubeck reported, he protested his expulsion in song, perhaps channeling Pete Seeger or Woodie Guthrie: “God bless America, land that I love, stand beside her and guide her … as someone gets escorted out.”
If you are getting the impression Saturday’s session was a fruitless exercise of democracy in action — or inaction — be assured that it was not. The context for Grafton’s marathon meeting is that a majority of voters apparently showed up determined to thwart the designs of the so-called Free Staters, who have moved to town over the past decade with the goal of turning it into the mecca of libertarianism. The flavor of the Free State Project can be savored in the following quotation from one of its members, Jeremy Olson, who declared that, “You shouldn’t be forced to pay for things you don’t want.” It should be noted that Grafton was hardly a bastion of big-spending liberalism before the Free Staters arrived, but most residents accepted the notion that one is obliged occasionally to support government services that one does not particularly want or need.
At last year’s deliberative session, the Free Staters succeeded in amending the proposed town budget to cut it by 10 percent, or more than $128,000, as part of their plan to shrink government. Voters subsequently rejected the Free Staters’ handiwork at Town Meeting. This year, Olson came prepared with a series of written motions proposing cuts — $43,000 in the police budget, $5,000 in legal expenses, $34,000 in the highway department allotment. For procedural reasons that appeared to have escaped Olson, none of those motions went before voters before the proposed budget article was adopted. “It’s complete chaos in there,” said Olson. Of course, if town government has become chaotic, it seems safe to say that the Free Staters have made a vital contribution to the creation of that condition.
Selectboard Chairman Steve Darrow summed up the experience this way: “People wanted to show up to make sure what happened last year didn’t happen again. There was strong support from people who didn’t want the budget cut arbitrarily.” Sure, it was messy, but it seems to have worked.