By John Webster — Camden Resident
Alexis de Tocqueville famously singled out town meeting/direct democracy as the purest form of democracy ever put into practice. It exists nowhere else but here in New England.
You may not remember, but back in December The Camden Herald offered readers “A look back at 2022” summarizing significant events that occurred in Camden during the year. Odd as it may seem, apart from noting that voters last June “approved changes to town meeting process”, the article made no reference to what has to be the most profound change to occur in our town’s governance in over 200 years. But, now, with 2023’s Election Day not far off, wouldn’t it be a good idea for Camden’s voters to look back at what legislative powers they might unwittingly have relinquished back on June 14, nearly a year ago?
On that day, our then-four Select Board members, Alison McKellar, Robert Falciani, Sophie Romana, and Marc Ratner pulled off a major coup, having successfully convinced a majority of Camden’s voters to authorize a far-reaching change to our Town Charter.
During the summer of 2021, Camden’s Charter Commission (following several years’ work evaluating possible charter updates), had strongly recommended Camden retain our traditional town meeting governance structure. However, our four Select Board members had something else in mind, and we soon began hearing criticism of our traditional, directly democratic town meeting governance—primarily, that voters had way too much power (and by inference, the Select Board, too little).
Select Board Assistant Chairperson McKellar was at the forefront of this campaign, and by far the most outspoken—both in her frequent opinion pieces in The Camden Herald and at public meetings.
Ostensibly with the goal of broadening public interest and increasing voter turnout, the Select Board maintained that voting by secret ballot was preferable to open voting at town meetings. And with Covid-19 still a threat to public gatherings, townspeople found this argument persuasive (as became apparent in a straw vote that November).
Eventually, on Election Day, June 14, 2022, a majority of Camden voters (943, to be exact) acted on the four Select Board members’ unanimous recommendation, approving Warrant Article 3, to “amend the Town Charter to provide for using [the] secret ballot for adoption of the annual budget”.
But, in so doing, these 943 voters completely misunderstood the central purpose of Camden’s annual town meeting.
Camden’s post-colonial residents originally established the town meeting back in 1791 as their most effective means of directly discussing and deciding issues affecting the town and its future direction—as an assemblage—so all could hear the pros and cons of various issues and undertakings before voting, rather than leaving such matters to their elected, short-term, Select Board representatives to resolve.
Were these 943 Camden voters on June 14 fully aware that our annual town meeting constituted our sole opportunity as legally empowered legislators to reconsider, challenge, debate—even repurpose—warrant articles and spending amounts recommended by the town’s Budget Committee and our representatives on the Select Board? Because, in a direct democracy, final decision-making power on policy and budgets (unless contrary to state and federal law) resides exclusively in the hands of registered voters at town meetings.
Remember, in a directly democratic town meeting, the ruled are the rulers! It’s as simple and elegant as that.
But, as matters now stand, we no longer have our traditional annual town meeting in Camden’s Opera House. We have no way to come together officially as a community to shape our town’s future. We have a “town meeting” in name only. Instead of questioning, debate, and deciding by open vote, we now vote alone, by secret ballot.
Town meetings and direct democracy have had an essential role in governance across New England’s small towns and villages since the late 1600s. Alexis de Tocqueville famously singled out town meeting/direct democracy as the purest form of democracy ever put into practice. It exists nowhere else but here in New England.
Ever since the American Revolution, countless historians and political analysts here and abroad have sung its praises. Today, millions of people around the world would give almost anything to possess this rare, directly democratic power that 943 of Camden’s townspeople gave up unquestioningly last June—most of them, very likely, without realizing the mistake they were making.
Had the Select Board’s goal been to dismantle our directly democratic form of governance, Covid-19 proved to be a godsend, providing excellent cover. The pandemic gave the board a good excuse to put most citizen-volunteer committees “on hiatus” for months on end (volunteer committees being an essential part of town meeting government). The pandemic enabled the board to suspend town meetings at the Opera House. And the pandemic gave them ample time to acclimate the public to “convenient,” no-discussion, “non-confrontational” ballot-box voting at Camden’s Public Safety Building (the fire station). With the public softened up (as it were) and receptive to ballot-box voting, June 14, 2022 arrived—time for the Select Board to deliver the coup de grace.
How did they do it? (Please forgive me, I can’t help myself.) Imagine, if you will, our 2022 Select Board members Ratner, McKellar, Falciani, and Romana as Greeks (with Town Manager Caler and Lawyer Kelly lending a helping hand from behind), all wheeling a magnificent, two-story-high wooden horse up to the walls of Camden.
To their credit, nearly 500 townspeople prove suspicious of Greeks bearing gifts. However, almost 1,000 voters (actually, 943) turn out to be really very fond of horses, especially gift-horses! This gift-horse’s name was “Article 3″(the “Secret Ballot” amendment to Camden’s Town Charter on the June 14, 2022 ballot). In the end, nobody bothered to investigate the horse’s mouth; had they done so, they would have found some nasty teeth.
OK, you know the rest.
Hidden from sight within this big horse’s hollow belly crouched several “proposed related amendments” not spelled out in detail on the ballot. (Were there too many words, not enough space?)
These so-called “proposed related Amendments” served to align the Town Charter with Camden’s move to the secret ballot. Virtually unknown to most of the voting public, these “related Amendments” were designed to strengthen our Select Board and Town Manager’s decision-making powers, and their control over the Budget Committee while destroying the decisive legislative role held by Camden’s voters for 200-plus years. Ironically, by voting in favor of the secret ballot, the majority of our town’s voters also approved deletion of Section 6.06 Town Vote on the Budget, which stated, “The qualified voters of the Town shall have power under this article to require consideration or reconsideration of any budget item prior to adjournment of the annual Town Meeting.”
Those words “consideration or reconsideration” were at the heart and soul of the Town Charter, and those two functions were anathema to the Select Board. Section 6.06 allowed for public participation and dissent, without which democracy is a sham. Section 6.06 allowed the public to decide where it wanted to go, whether or not the Select Board and Town Manager agreed or disagreed. The Select Board actually marked this passage for deletion while “editing” the Camden Town Charter in draft form months before the June election.
So, likely it was entirely unintentional, but Camden’s voters empowered the Select Board to begin eviscerating the Town Charter the day after Election Day, last year. Now, Camden’s Town website boasts we have a “Select Board/Town Manager” form of government.
Our next Election Day is June 13. We need a Select Board that listens to our townspeople and is responsive. We need to restore our direct democracy and our town meeting. We need to reinstate Section 6.06, the original wording, and to make several other serious changes to the Town Charter.
We need Select Board members who act as our representatives—not “leaders” or “judges” or self-appointed “shepherds” who would have us be their sheep.