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1930s attitude toward Walpole RTM

January 15, 2014

Walpole has had a representative Town Meeting (RTM) form of government since 1971. That form of government has worked well – and many current RTMs and citizens don’t even remember the time before Walpole’s RTM.

But from the town’s founding in 1724 until 1971, Walpole had an open Town Meeting, meaning that all registered voters were allowed to show up to each Town Meeting to voice their opinion and cast a vote. There were no elected representatives. Some communities in New England still have an open Town Meeting. As many towns like Walpole grew larger, though, it became necessary to limit Town Meeting to a certain number of citizens, through elected representatives.

Recently, 180 discovered an editorial in the March 6, 1936 issue of The Walpole Times, which criticized any change to a representative Town Meeting, from the open Town Meeting. This was despite very low attendance by citizens at the open Town Meetings.

The editorial refers to representative Town Meeting as a “modified town meeting” and calls it “an evil, to be avoided as long as possible.”

The editorial provides an interesting look into how some Walpole residents over the course of history have felt about a representative Town Meeting.

Below is the full text of the editorial:

Somebody asks: “What about the modified town meeting? Wasn’t there some talk about it a few years ago?”

If the annual town meeting of 1936 might be used as a criterion, the answer would seem to be that the advocates of the modified town meeting can have it, any time they want to go after it.

The man who rarely, if ever, attends a town meeting, and who proudly boasts that he takes no interest in local politics, may ask: “What is a modified town meeting?”

Our answer would be that it is an evil, to be avoided as long as possible. Instead of an open forum, where gentle and simple meet on a common level, only elected representatives would be allowed a voice and vote. The town would be divided into several electoral districts and each district would elect a certain number of representatives according to population. These representatives, and these alone, would be entitled to a seat, a voice and a vote at town meeting. The rank and file of the townspeople would be taboo. A modified town meeting is the initial step for taking local government out of the hands of the people and turning it over to the politicians.

The people of Walpole can get along very nicely for many years to come without any change in the present set up; but, unless they perk up a bit, they are likely to wake up some fine morning and find their grand, old town meeting gone with the Awk and the Dodo, living only in pictures and memories of the past.

The attendance at town meeting numbered less than two hundred. A hundred votes would have been more than sufficient to carry any measure.

There are those who will say: “If the people don’t value their right to participate in local government, that right ought to be taken away from them.”

We cannot agree with such a sentiment; but we do feel that the voters of Walpole made a shameful showing at the 1936 town meeting, and unless they do better in the future they may lose their last remnant of democracy, the old New England town Meeting.

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