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A Lesson In Civics—but not what they teach in school
That splendid flower of New England— the town meeting—wilts under the scrutiny of a native son
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
It seemed that Higgiston of the Citizens’ Caucus party had been high man and my father second. For third place on the board of selectmen, Fitzsimmons of the Citizens’ Caucus had beaten my father’s running mate, Malloy, by three votes. We Goo-goos had already demanded a recount.
“I’ve told them we shouldn’t organize the new board until after the recount,” my father went on, “and I’ve told them we should have the recount before town meeting, but will the gorrammedy fools listen to me?”
I didn’t understand what town meeting had to do with it, so my father explained. The town meeting was to be held on Friday (it was now Tuesday) and two of the articles on the town warrant concerned putting the police department on civil service. If the citizens acted favorably on these articles, the policemen already holding jobs would go on civil service without examination, and they would have lifetime jobs. This included the chief of police, who was to be appointed by the new board of selectmen. At the insistence of Higgiston and Fitzsimmons, the board was to meet that very afternoon.
“And they’ll appoint Moloney, and they’ll hold up the recount until after town meeting and they’ll try to jam civil service through, and if Malloy gets in on the recount instead of Fitzsimmons—”
In short it was a gorramm mess.
My father was right. When the selectmen met that afternoon, Higgiston and Fitzsimmons, over my father’s objections, appointed Moloney chief of police, as well as a long list of other people to such offices as lockup-keeper, field driver, fence viewer, burial agent, public weigher, and weigher of coal. My father joined the others in only one ballot: he voted for Higgiston to be chairman of selectmen. He regretted it later.
The recount was set for Saturday morning—the day following the town meeting. One thing could be said for this decision—it made each person in town know what he wanted. If you were a Citizens’ Caucus man (and thus in favor of Moloney for chief of police), you wanted the civil service articles in the town warrant to pass on Friday night. If you were a Good Government man (and thus in favor of O’Brien), you wanted to keep these articles from coming up until after the recount on Saturday; failing that you wanted the articles defeated.
There was some talk in our home about whether I should attend the town meeting. I argued that for several years our teachers had been telling us what a fine lesson in civics a town meeting was. My father asked wryly whether they were saying so this year. I was able to answer yes, that one teacher was taking a whole class to the meeting. My father said he hoped all those minors would vote against civil service. I said, well, could I go? My mother said I could if I’d promise to leave at ten o’clock. I said of course I would. My father winked at me.
On Friday night I went early to town meeting and got a seat in the front row of the balcony. The town officials got there early, too, and so did the relatives of Moloney and O’Brien, and various politicians from surrounding towns who had the professional’s academic interest in what was going to happen. There were lots of high school upperclassmen, too—and of course there were voters, though six hundred of these had to be turned away from Town Hall. By the time the meeting started there were three persons for every two seats, and the aisles were jammed.
And yet, for the first few hours the town meeting was disappointingly calm. There were no fist fights until we reached Article 13, and we didn’t have to call in the state troopers until Article 14.
Article 13 concerned putting the police force, exclusive of the chief, on civil service without examination. Before Town Clerk Sullivan (Citizens’ Caucus) had finished reading the article, men were popping up all over the hall, shouting “Mr. Moderator!” The moderator, a man named McLoughlin (Citizens’ Caucus), recognized a man named McMahon (Citizens’ Caucus), who moved to accept the article. Someone else moved an amendment to postpone action until after all other articles in the warrant had been disposed of. The moderator made this Good Government man put his motion in writing.
There was a great debate then, often with three or four of the debaters shouting at once. My uncle spoke. A Citizens’ Caucus man answered him. I couldn’t hear either of them, but I cheered my uncle and booed his adversary. No one told me to shut up because everyone around me was cheering and booing too. Finally there were some shouts, and the moderator announced that the motion to postpone action was defeated. Men screamed their doubt of this. Men shouted that they hadn’t known a vote was to be taken. A couple of men were struggling with each other in one of the side aisles. The moderator allowed a standing vote and appointed four or five men as tellers. I booed. Men stood, then sat, then stood again. The tellers announced that the motion to postpone was defeated.