Call it raucous, contentious or boisterous. Whatever the adjective you choose to use, Town Meeting this year was certainly entertaining.
Selectman Brian Major led Town Meeting in singing Happy Birthday, as it was the 150th anniversary of this classic, New England tradition. The late Al Retelle was honored with the Virginia Cole Community Service Award. Former Selectman Mary Lyman and former School Committee member Dennis Forgue, who both stepped down this year, were thanked for their service.
Turnout, while not the highest ever, was consistently strong. The first night — May 5 — was attended by more than 600 registered voters. The next night saw fewer attendees, but was still well-attended. Even this week’s two meetings on Monday and Tuesday nights saw turnouts of several hundred each evening.
Most important, however, is that every night was filled with substantive dialogue during which the important business of the town was conducted in a mostly civil tone.
There were some disagreements, as well as some questionable actions by town officials, that may continue to haunt Town Meeting 2014. But for the most part, the stars of the show were Town Meeting voters themselves.
On Night One, they took apart the $152 million budget, piece by piece, before ultimately putting it back together again and approving most of what had been sought by the town manager, the School Committee and the Board of Selectmen.
Town Meeting members spent more than three hours the first night voting on the budget. Some said it was unprecedented, that Town Meeting is usually just a rubber stamp for the budget, going along with what town officials propose. Not this year. From the very outset, it was clear Town Meeting wanted to know more about the budget, demanding answers and, in numerous cases, proposing changes.
Many residents had done their homework, asking questions, for example, about the OPEB liability, or how much the town owes retired employees for health insurance.