By Margot Fleischman
This letter was originally posted to the Bedford Town Taxi in 2011; although a bit dated, my thoughts on why you should attend Town Meeting remain unchanged…
When I arrived in Bedford, nearly seven years ago now, I had never been to a Town Meeting. Before I lived in Massachusetts, I didn’t even know that this sort of town government existed. I would have thought, “How quaint,” – some sort of throw-back to a Frank Capra past.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, I was not aware of our local government. The suburb of Philadelphia I lived in is not really a “town” the way we think of it, but rather one small part of a township that is run by county government. Our zip code straddles townships and counties, and the downtown isn’t even in the same county as my parents’ home. The county seat is, in fact, located many miles away. My parents, who still live there, do not know why anything happens in their town. If they want to go and find out more, petition their government, or talk face-to-face with someone who holds the power to make decisions or affect changes, they have to drive 20 minutes by highway to get there. To this day, I have no idea how local government there works, or who is in charge, and I certainly don’t think my family ever had a voice in how things were run.
After I left Pennsylvania, I lived in Arlington for many years, and I was dimly aware that Town Meeting happened from time to time, but it was representative and not open, so I never went. The closest I got to my government was a cordial relationship with an Arlington selectman who was very helpful to a community group I joined to save a local branch library in my neighborhood. He was great, but otherwise, local government seemed pretty anonymous. The Powers That Be.
So when I moved to Bedford in October of 2003, I really had no concept of what a Town Meeting was, how it worked, and why it was worth attending. But I was intrigued when I received my first ever Town Warrant. It was full of the details of the town budget, full of decisions that needed to be made by the Town, that is, by town residents like me. What a fabulous opportunity to find out WHY things were the way they were in my new home town. And direct democracy – what an amazing concept! So I went.
When I arrived in the BHS auditorium, I didn’t know a soul. I sat down in an aisle seat next to a friendly looking person who was kind enough to explain to me what was going on. She was endlessly patient and answered all my questions, and during long votes, we chatted and swapped stories to pass the time. By the end of the evening, I felt like I’d learned a lot and even had fun.
This is what I learned: Town Meeting IS the Town. We may delegate responsibilities to our Selectmen, our departments and our elected boards, but when it comes down to it, we decide. Local government is not some anonymous, far away and unapproachable bureaucratic maze – it’s just us.
That November Monday in 2003, I did not know that I would eventually attend every night of Town Meeting, first as a resident, and later as a Planning Board member, from then until today. And that nice lady – well, that was Noreen O’Gara, now one of our hardworking School Board members. I guess we both got excited about town government.
Once upon a time, Town Meeting was something out of a story, but now I can’t imagine running a small town any other way. In the end, probably because I grew up without it, I treasure Town Meeting. I love knowing what’s going on, having a voice, and doing the hard work of making Bedford a wonderful place to live. Yes, at moments it can be tedious, but it’s the process that is so meaningful. We stand at attention as the flags come in. We talk, we debate, we learn, we vote. We are civil and respectful. We make the easy calls and the tough decisions. We are divided, and then we find consensus. Or not. We are Bedford.
Please come to Annual Town Meeting – it won’t be Bedford without you.