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America's Oldest Town Hall Meeting

The 267-year-old tradition is alive and well in Pelham, Mass.

To see how well Pelham's town hall has held up over centuries, click here to view additional photos.

On a cool autumn evening, Kathleen Martell, town clerk for Pelham, Mass., unlocks the doors to the Town Hall, turns on the lights, starts a fire in the fireplace and helps arrange chairs in neat rows, enough to seat 115 townspeople. Soon she is joined by newly elected town moderator Daniel Robb and the Board of Selectmen: James Huber, William Martell and Edward Martin. By 7 p.m., town residents occupy most of the chairs, with the overflow sitting on simple wooden benches that line the meeting room’s walls. A few minutes later, Robb calls the meeting to order, the noisy crowd quiets quickly and so begins a Pelham tradition dating back nearly three centuries.

Town meetings have been a fixture in New England since the first one was held in Dorchester, Mass., in 1633. But only Pelham can lay claim to having the oldest town hall in continuous use for town meetings. The wooden, two-story structure, which stands on a hill at the corner of Amherst Road and Daniel Shays Highway (named after the leader of a post-Revolutionary War rebellion of farmers who battled government soldiers on the Town Hall’s grounds), was built in 1743. For 267 years, Pelham residents have annually walked, ridden horses, driven in wagons or carriages -- and now, cars and trucks -- to the simple clapboard hall to discuss and vote on vital town issues.

Upstairs, where the meetings were held for many years, the rear of the room is lined with narrow pews; the backs consist of a single pine plank more than two feet wide. Centuries of carving by bored or restless residents have scarred the pews with names, doodles and images -- some so deep they’ve left holes in the thick planks. Two wood-burning stoves sit on the floor, ready to provide heat. The entire structure is devoid of decoration, save for a small amount of wood carving in the form of two scallops on the wall near where a pulpit once stood. (The hall also served as a church until 1833, when Massachusetts formerly separated church and state with an amendment to the state constitution.)

These days, the meetings have been moved downstairs to accommodate disabled residents who can’t climb the stairs to the second floor. At this year’s fall gathering on Oct. 20, Robb starts by calling for a moment of silence for a sick town member, and then reads the five warrant articles the town will discuss and vote on. Technically the meeting that evening is a special one -- it’s not the annual meeting that takes place in the spring. Special town meetings are held to consider business that must be dealt with prior to the annual meeting, according to town historian Joseph Larson. And he’s quick to admit that Pelham makes sure it annually holds a special meeting to maintain the designation of having the oldest town hall in continuous use.

Town meetings often are called the purest and most democratic form of government -- direct democracy where the town’s business is discussed, debated and voted on by members of the community. Yes, anyone can speak, but unlike the mock town meetings seen on TV and the Internet during the health-care debates, with their confrontational and hyperbolic politics, the meeting in Pelham is civil and the participants engaged. Moderator Robb quietly reminds the residents to introduce themselves and state where they live before speaking. In fact, the governance process that evening, regarding rules of order, is discussed with almost as much fervor as the articles.

It quickly becomes clear which topic will be the most contentious when Robb reads Article 2, calling for the town to vote to raise the salaries of Pelham’s fire chief and its volunteer firefighters. The sums are modest -- $9,230 for the part-time fire chief and $10,386 for the firefighters. It has been six years since the last salary increase was passed, but a number of residents raise questions about the article’s timing and amount. The debate continues, and with the room full of volunteer firefighters (all wearing their uniforms), a motion is passed to vote on the article by secret ballot.

Before voting begins, Pelham Fire Chief Raymond Murphy makes an impassioned speech in favor of the raises. He points out that the dollar amount will raise the hourly rate for the firefighters from $7.45 to $10. “Some of you have the idea that the fire department is a social club, a place to hang out because there’s no bowling in town,” he says. “But we’re a professional organization, run by dedicated firefighters, willing to risk our lives for the safety of the community.”

The final comments before the vote come from Thomas P. Lederle, an elderly man in the front row who speaks eloquently in a clear voice about his recent medical emergency and how the town’s firefighters arrived quickly and transported him to the hospital, “saving my life.” He implores the town to pass the modest increase. When the voting is done and the ballots are counted, the salary increase passes by a large majority.

Except for the chirping of the occasional mobile phone (which draws admonishment from Robb), Pelham’s town hall meeting hardly differs from those that took place decades, even centuries, before.

But the town meeting -- once a fixture in New England -- has been slowly buffeted by change. Urbanization and depopulation of the hill towns has reduced the practice -- as well as participation. Starting in the 1960s, however, town meetings in New England underwent something of a revival, according to Frank Bryan, author of Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works. The notion of “small is beautiful,” along with skepticism for large-scale solutions, began drawing people back to participate in this simple form of democratic government.

Today though, that revival is beginning to lose steam. In Vermont, for example, only 7.2 percent of the state population voted at the annual town meetings in 2009, according to its secretary of state. Other New England states have reported decreases in town meeting participation. Bryan attributes the more recent decline to “commuter-based lifestyles and other demographic and institutional dislocations.”

But Larson is optimistic about town meeting democracy in Pelham. He points out that the town has seen its population dwindle to just a few hundred residents at the turn of the last century, only to have it slowly return to its current level of 1,440 (about the same level as in the early 19th century). “That increase has kept the attendance at meetings going well,” he says. And Larson is sanguine about the long-term prospects for the Town Hall. At the October meeting, Article 4, which calls for appropriating $2,400 to hire a historic preservation consultant to evaluate the building’s exterior, passes by a near-unanimous vote.

Tod is the editor of Governing . Previously, he was the senior editor at Government Technology and the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.
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