Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Arden Town Meeting, Our Slide into Local Politics

Last night Mark and I participated in the quarterly Village of Arden Town Meeting at the Gild Hall. Every time we go to a town meeting (this was my sixth and Mark's seventh), people ask us if Arden has scared us off yet. I wonder how many more meetings we will be asked this question. While I ponder my answer, I admit I am fascinated by this whole process. And I am new to it. I only ever attended one township meeting while living in East Cocalico Township and that was because someone proposed building a huge garage for his business on the tiny residential plot next door to our house. I never even attended any sort of church business meetings because I didn't want to sully my spiritual experience with something so practical as budget talk or the building report.

This is different. Arden meetings implement a direct democracy in which a town chair presides over the meeting. Residents who are over 17 and have lived in Arden for more than six months can vote on measures and make motions. I am still learning the procedures. Because I haven't been involved in any sort of governing body before, I don't know what is unique to Arden and what is "regular" practice. To underscore my naiveté, I must tell a somewhat embarrassing story. I was deep into a Gilmore Girls marathon (love the Stars Hollow town meetings, by the way) when the character Rory mentioned something about Robert's Rules of Order.  Roberts Rules of Order? They're for real? That isn't just a made up Arden thing? What did I know? I was operating under the delusion that some Georgist town father named Bob came up with that scheme. So when you are reading my commentary on the meeting, you will have to understand that I am coming from a place of wonder that is almost childlike.

March's meeting is the yearly election meeting. This year we were voting in a new town chair as well as many committee members.  In the months leading up to the election, all the committees went scurrying around looking for people to fill out the ballot. It isn't enough to have uncontested seats on each committee; each committee needs a full register of choices. This gets very difficult. The Ardens maybe have 400 adults from which to draw to fill their committees.  Some residents are not active at all in town politics. Some have been very active in the past and are burnt out now. Arden requires a lot of volunteerism, and not just within its government, but also within its culture. Committees are always trying to find fresh blood and new energy to keep the machine in motion. Consider that Mark and I have been among the 60 or so people at the past town meetings. We are active. We are interested. We are new. Arden has the following committees: Archives, Audit, Budget, Buzz Ware Village Center, Civic, Community Planning, Forest, Playground, Registration and Safety. Between the two of us, Mark and I were asked to run for all but Archives. It is also interesting to note that no committee approached both of us. I guess we have our niches. I agreed to run for a spot on the Forest committee simply because I got tired of saying no. I am already on the Arden Community Recreation Board, and that commitment has been enough for me at the moment. Mark was on the ballot three times. Last night I was asked, "Do you want to be on the Forest committee?" People are used to the fact that some names are just there to fill out the ballot. I am that person, but if I got elected to the committee, I would give it my all.

About half of time of the town meeting is spent on committee reports. The other half is made up of recognition of new and departed residents; reports from Town Chair, Trustees, Treasurer, Advisory Committee, and Board of Assessors (those who determine land rent for the year); and old and new business. All the meetings I have attended have lasted about three hours. Herein is the problem. We want more attendance and participation at the meetings, but they seem to drag on for days with most of the time being eaten up in the minutiae of the mundane. Since I have been attending meetings, the most heated topic has been the replacement of a playground slide. Before that it was the chopping down of a single tree that was blocking light from the community garden. These two issues sparked hours of passionate nitpicking. Of the three people running for Town Chair, two were running under the promises of keeping meetings short and effective so that more people will participate. The other candidate may or may not have instigated some of the most lengthy exchanges on the barn floor.

Things get pretty heated. I sit on the outer ring of the chair circles and knit. Sometimes, I say incantations of peace under my breath. Think Professor Snape murmuring spells to keep Harry Potter on his broom during the quidditch match in The Sourcerer's Stone. That's me. I'm not sure how much power my yarn and mantra magic is having. Even with me "Ohm-ing" quietly, the microphone still slams to the ground, and people walk out. It isn't just tantrums for tantrum's sake. The people here care. They are smart. Lots of Duponters who are used to a meeting. I think that company may have invented them. And if they didn't invent them, then they elevated the business meeting to something close to a Japanese Tea Ceremony. Besides the engineers, we have the artists. The ones who always have to look at a problem from a different perspective, one that nobody else has seen before. The same people come up to the microphone again and again. I can't help it. I begin to count. Others groan. My dismissive thoughts crowd out any points these sticklers are trying to make. Some of last night's hot topics included: the investment of gift monies, processes for grants, and the question of which committee should oversee the G-Arden.

My newbie alliance sits with the committees. We have voted these people in. They have spent their precious time coming together to take care their slice of Arden business. They research and debate in their smaller circles. When they are through with that process, they present findings and decisions along with their proposed motions. It is then, that people get in their faces and on the microphone over the details. Here is where I believe things break down. The committee meetings are the places for the debate. If it is an issue that you care about, go to that meeting and hammer it out while the metal is hot. Don't wait until they bring the finished bronze sculpture before the whole town. Committee meeting times and their agendas are publicized and open to the public--or they are supposed to be. It isn't a perfect system. I understand why some of the debate happens after the fact. But I am still of the mind to let elected committee members do the heavy pounding. If you don't like what is happening, vote them out.

And here it comes full circle. Back to the place where we are trying to get more people involved. More people running--and excited about running--for spots on each of the committees so people have a choice of leadership. Last night, at the start of the meeting, we had a crowd of at least 90 people, hungry for their ballots. By the meeting's end at nearly 10:30 PM, we were lucky to have 30. We were there until the Danny's final adjournment as town chair. I was tempted to leave early, but Mark is the kind of guy who always stays to help stack the chairs, much to my yawning chagrin. Tomorrow we will know the results of the election. A new town chair. Will that make the difference? Will the Arden electorate initiate us into the bold new world of committee work? I don't know, but I feel a certain privilege in this process. No, Arden, you haven't scared me off yet.

For those interested, here is a link How Arden Government Works.


  1. One error of note is calling Chair of Town Assembly the Town Chair which implies an executive position of which there are none. Thank you for confirming what I already knew: there are a lot of ex-Duponters in Arden and they bring their 'special' set of rules re: how the Town should operate, except for the fact the town operates according to a Charter, definitely not by 'uniqueness' or 'regular practice. Town Meetings 'dragging on for days'? Not so. Meetings are run by Robert's Rules of Order... certainly nothing to ignore or joke about. I invite all to come to a Town Meeting, observe, and begin asking questions, if only to yourself. And, above all, don't believe the hype.

  2. By the way, if one reads the definition of 'utopia' and knows anything about Arden, they will know Arden is not that.