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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
So the question reverted to the original motion to accept the article. There was more debate, which I missed because I was watching a fight among the standees behind me. When I turned around, the town was voting on whether to use the check list. The tellers announced that the town rejected this. Several men moved to adjourn and were declared out of order. The moderator put McMahon’s motion to accept Article 13 to a vote, and the tellers announced the result: The police were on civil service.
After that it got exciting.
There was a sort of snake dance of voters, each with his hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him, knifing through the swarms of people in the aisles. I found out afterward that these men were trying to get to the stage to announce that they doubted the vote, but the crowd was too thick—and anyhow the town clerk was reading. No one could hear him, but he must have been reading Article 14, which asked that the police chief also be put on civil service without examination.
Men were standing up yelling, “I move that we adjourn!” Others were standing up yelling, “Sit down!” The scuffling in the side aisle was getting vicious now. The space in front of the stage was filled with gesticulating, red-faced men, among them my father and my uncle. The moderator attacked his desk with the gavel. I was beating the railing in front of me and alternately shouting “Boo!” and “Hooray!” I saw a woman in the packed aisle beneath me crying.
I never did see the state troopers come in. But suddenly they were there, shouldering their way through the aisles, using their hands, pushing people, shouting at people. One trooper with a stick broke up the fight in the side aisle, and the noise subsided somewhat. There was a motion to adjourn and I could see, though I could not hear, the moderator putting it to a vote. When he declared that the motion was lost, the wrangling broke out again, and the troopers had to move with renewed vigor through the crowd for another half hour or more. Finally, the moderator could be heard once more, and lo! he was announcing that sometime amid the confusion a voice vote had adopted the article. My father doubted it. He was cheered and hissed. The moderator asked his tellers to count the votes.
I don’t know how the tellers determined who was standing up to vote—or which way—as distinguished from those who were standing up to fight or those who were standing up because there was no place to sit down. But they did count the votes, and they announced that Moloney was now on civil service.
There was more uproar. The Good Government adherents were doubting the vote, and the Citizens’ Caucus adherents were—now—moving for adjournment. The state troopers were cheerfully shoving people toward the exits. Several people near me said, “It’s all over,” and I found myself part of a general push toward the out-of-doors.
Well, at least the town of Milford knew where it stood: it had a certain board of selectmen, a certain chairman of that board, and a certain chief of police, who was now protected by civil service.
This era of stability lasted twelve hours.
At the end of that period the recount had been taken, and it developed that on election day, in counting the last few hundred votes, the weary tellers had made a great number of mistakes, all of them favorable to the candidates of the Citizens’ Caucus party. The recount put Fitzsimmons (Citizens’ Caucus) out, and Malloy (Goo-goo) in. The new board of selectmen—the new new board—met immediately.
Malloy nominated my father for chairman of the board. My father seconded the nomination. Higgiston objected, saying that he had already been elected chairman by the votes of himself and my father, who were still members of the board. My father said he wouldn’t have voted for Higgiston if the true result of the municipal election had been known at the time the vote was taken. The vote was illegal, he said, so it had to be taken over again by the legally elected board, and he was hereby voting for himself as chairman. Malloy jumped on the Cenedella bandwagon. Higgiston voted for Higgiston, and claimed that he was still chairman.
Malloy then moved that Ernie O’Brien be appointed chief of police. Higgiston said Moloney had been made chief on Tuesday. My father said it wasn’t Tuesday any longer, and that since Fitzsimmons, whose vote had put Moloney in, had not really been elected selectman, his vote was not legal. Higgiston said that Moloney had been the chief of police on Friday night when that neighborly democratic institution, the New England town meeting, had voted him the protection of civil service. My father said that Moloney could not have been police chief since the vote of a man not legally elected had given him the office, and that anyhow, the vote at town meeting had been illegal since it had been doubted by more than seven voters, and the moderator had done nothing about that. So my father and Malloy voted O’Brien in as police chief, with Higgiston voting for Moloney and maintaining that vote or no vote, Moloney was chief.