Town Meeting time
I keep track of the lilac bushes on my way to work, tiny buds as tight as a fist start to slowly unfurl as the calendar turns to May. The peeper frogs have been at it for weeks now, their electric chorus ringing out in the night. Lengthening days are our reward for an endless winter.
But the real sign of spring on Cape Cod and the Islands is the start of Annual Town Meeting.
The New England town meeting is, according to one Henry David Thoreau, the true Congress, “the most respectable one ever assembled in the United States.” It’s direct democracy — one person, one vote, done in real time (sometimes excruciatingly so). It’s also a reminder as to why state and federal lawmaking can occur at a glacial pace — after all, it can take us two hours of debate to decide if Mr. Smith should be allowed to subdivide his two-acre lot.
I’m writing this between the first and second day of Nantucket’s Annual Town Meeting. Many of the issues we voted on Saturday are ones the rest of the region is contending with — affordable housing and short-term rentals leading the discussion. The question at the heart of these deeply interconnected concerns seems to be who gets to visit these places, and who gets to stay.
Debate was leaning away from supporting a six-and-a-half-million override for affordable housing. Listening to the tide turn must be how a fisherman feels when he can smell a slick of bluefish nearby.
“If you bought a house before 2000,” one speaker said, “You’re already a millionaire.”
Who ever thought sand would be worth so much? The override for affordable housing is passed.
Town Meeting isn’t all Norman Rockwell paintings, especially now that the Massachusetts Supreme Court has protected the “right to be rude” — civility cannot be required in a public comment section of a public meeting. Temperatures run hot after eight hours in a high school gym on the first sunny day in weeks. So far, we’ve not had to call in the Sheriff as we did last year during a particularly spirited debate.
I spend a lot of my life thinking about the past, the history of Nantucket and Cape Cod. Town Meeting is a rare opportunity for a community to come together and look forward — where do we want to be in another ten years? It is much harder to look ahead and plan than it is to look back.
On Sunday, we were given a reprieve from legislating and, under a bluebird sky, I went for a drive with a friend out on Cotaue, the island’s barrier beach that forms the upper harbor. We didn’t see a single other vehicle on the isolated sandy stretch. It’s gull nesting season, and a colony of seabirds had set up shop near the ghosts of some gnarled cedar trees. Male and female birds alike sat on top of their intricate nests. A gathering of larger gulls, acting very much like guardsmen, kept their beady eyes on the truck as we slowed to pass. Others faced headlong into the increasing wind, not a single feather ruffled.
There are migratory birds who use the island as a pit stop on their long journey this way and that, or rare birds blown in by a storm. Those sighting send shockwaves of excitement through the birding community. But the gulls are our constant companions, our neighbors we see at the landfill each week.
Most town meeting speakers assert how long they’ve been here — ten years, twenty years, fifty years — but all summers. Or, twelve generations. We can’t do anything about where we were born, but we all have a stake in making this town better. A gull squawks at us, his voice bright and shrill, and I wonder if he’s telling us he’s been here all his life, born in the sand just like his brethren.