I’m back in Arlington for a few days R&R, bleary from jetlag (Hawaii doesn’t observe DST, so it’s 6 hours earlier, yo) and lack of sleep, but otherwise doing very well and awaiting career (and frankly, potentially life) changing news from Hollywood. But in the meantime, something happened which got me thinking about our American democracy, and so I took another walk around town (ok, mostly a drive), snapped some pics, and decided to write about it.
For the past 18 years, I have been a member of America’s oldest form of democracy, the New England town meeting. In some smaller towns (like Sunderland, where my mom used to live), every resident gathers once a year to act as the legislature and vote on town laws and budgets. In Arlington, with more than 40,000 residents, getting everyone together would be a bit unwieldy, so Town Meeting members are 252 elected representatives, 12 from each of our town’s 21 precincts. I have been a rep for Arlington’s best, Precinct 14. If you’d like to learn more about town government, I encourage you to check out the town’s website at https://www.arlingtonma.gov/town-governance
I actually got myself elected just a few months after moving to town (in April 2003), and have been re-elected 5 times since (we serve staggered 3-year terms). I actively campaigned the first time — I had, after all, just moved to town — but haven’t really since. At first I attended every minute of every meeting (a handful of sessions on Monday and Wednesday evenings in spring), but recently have become slightly more discerning as to whether my presence is really required to vote on Appointment of Measurer of Wood and Bark (Article 4, you can look it up).
Still, even though this year I knew I’d be about as far away as you can be on Election Day, I made sure to get and submit my absentee ballot to the drop box in front of Town Hall before I left. Town Meeting is important to me, and I’ve been very proud of how we kept our local democracy going during the pandemic. Last June we met in a socially distanced manner on the athletic field behind the high school, and then this past fall we continued town meeting virtually.
I voted for myself, my friend and neighbor Alan, his wife Elisabeth, and our former Town counsel John. There’s rarely much contention over town meeting — it’s not a job everyone wants – so we might get 5 or 6 folks seeking the 4 slots up this cycle. This year we had 5. I also convinced my wife to vote for me, and she says that she did, although her eye sight isn’t what it used to be and she wasn’t wearing her glasses, so I guess I’m just going to have to take her word for it. That’s going to turn out to be more important than you might suspect.
To my surprise, I found myself in a tie with Alan — we each got 148 votes. Tie Town Meeting elections do not happen often (maybe this was even the first), so the Town Clerk and head of Town Meeting (called the Moderator) checked with the state election board and discovered that a tie was not resolved by coin flip or some such — it was, in fact, considered a “failed election” and resulted in a vacancy the Precinct’s other Town Meeting Members would vote to fill. Personally, I think this is undemocratic and encourage our state legislators to change it — the election did not “fail,” Alan and I tied for the last available spot, and creating a vacancy which the other TMM could fill however they pleased strikes me as not really respecting the will of the voters. It should, in my opinion, be Alan or me. But who would it be?
Well, as it turns out, even before learning all this, I had already reached out to Alan and said that if he was unwilling to resolve the election by my preferred method (pistols at dawn), I would happily stand aside before the coin flip that I thought would break the tie, and thereby let him take the seat uncontested. Alan and Elisabeth are wonderful neighbors — I still recall one time when we had gone away on vacation and left the attic light on by mistake, and Alan e-mailed to let me know. And they are good voices for our precinct. We may not agree on everything or vote exactly the same way, but that’s not the point. The point is that they represent us well, and the institution of Town Meeting and local democracy is as important now as it has ever been. I might have won this quote-unquote “vacancy,” or Alan might have, but I had and have no desire to perpetuate this election and create division within our precinct. Town Meeting Member for Arlington, MA, is a far cry from President, but as I told my daughters, in the time of Trump, there’s something to be said for showing a little grace and not trying to hold onto every slender scrap of political power for as long as possible.
And so ends my career in Town Meeting, and if pride requires, I can always say that I was never defeated — my 7th election resulted in a tie and a vacancy, at which point I gracefully withdrew. But I think I’m gonna be fine with it, and anyway, I’m back on the road in a few days. Stay tuned!