Friday, 04 January 2013 00:00“Give us back the old-fashioned town meeting where one can ventilate his views in a demonstrative way upon all matters of political interest,” lamented the Oyster Bay Pilot newspaper in April 1891, days after the town elections. “This ballot reform business has largely killed out the enthusiasm of these annual occasions where the fate of the town, of the state and of the nation is determined.”
The Pilot, now part of this newspaper chain as the Enterprise-Pilot, was expressing a popular viewpoint. The state’s new Town Law set down new requirements and procedures for voting at multiple polling places in the large the towns. It also laid the groundwork for the slow transformation of a board of officers that met once a year to audit financial records into more of a legislative body that could take independent action without taxpayer consent. Across 250 years, the annual meeting was the basis of Long Island self-government, and “a sort of annual fair for men and boys” according to the recollections of one Oyster Bay old-timer in 1931.
The suburbanizing towns had more residents, more of everything than anyone had intended. Direct democracy gave way to republican representation.
That phrase, “annual meeting” is a familiar one to those who comb public notices and meeting agendas. It still exists in some parts of state law, most notably referring to the “Annual Meeting and Election” of our school districts each spring. “Annual Meeting” is now mostly a synonym for “voting day.” Many elected officials and members of boards of education probably don’t realize that this is not just some legalistic jargon, but a literal description dating back to a time when local voters met and decided pretty much everything.
Town meeting was the legislative branch of the town. Every spring, qualified town electors met at a designated meeting spot to make policy, pass resolutions, draft men for special tasks and jury duty, and elect officers to carry out the people’s decisions. The officers would make reports on how well they had carried out tasks from the last meeting. Citizens had the right to bring up any legal proposal and have it considered, and could call special meetings to handle urgent business in between annual meetings.
In the sixty years after the Civil War, public education included a heavy dose of “civics,” practical instruction in the workings of the government. New York’s textbooks fairly gushed over the “pure democracy” of town and school government, in which “the people themselves are the government.” Citizenship, students were taught, involved both the duty of allegiance to the government and entitlement to reciprocal protection. The annual meeting was an idealized laboratory of citizenship. Women meeting qualifications could vote in school and town elections years before the 19th Amendment.
Eligible voters in special districts had their own annual meetings. Incorporated villages always had presidents and trustees but also had village meetings, which had to approve larger expenditures. Because school funding was always controversial, the schools have always been required to get voter approval for basic financial decisions. That is why we still vote on annual school budgets.
In some districts there was a local tradition of very active annual meetings. At the 1930 Elmont meeting, the budget session went far into night as agitated taxpayers pared down office supplies and clerk salaries. In a 2 a.m. coup de grace, they eliminated the entire salary of the district’s supervising principal. Five years later, in the same district, scores of voters staged a walkout to protest the board’s failure to publish all budget figures in advance, and there was a string of fistfights.
Some readers will recall that until the late 1960s, most school districts had two evenings of voting. Technically, the annual meeting was for budget approval and the election of school trustees was held the next night. At this point, the two processes have been merged.
The East Williston School District kept up rudimentary annual meetings into the 1990s, and now when they close the polls each May, the board of education symbolically gavels in the annual meeting at which they announce the results. It’s a charming homage to a lost local tradition.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org