A Professors Survey

NATICK – If you want information on town meetings in Massachusetts, the logical place to turn is the Massachusetts Moderators Association, the closest thing there is to an organization that keeps tabs on the 303 town-meeting towns in the Commonwealth. But if you want to know about town meetings in Maine, or Rhode Island, or New Hampshire–or anywhere, really–the one to see is Professor Joseph F. Zimmerman.

Prof. Zimmerman has been studying the New England town meeting since his days as a graduate student in the 1950s. A native of Keene, N.H., Prof. Zimmerman taught for 11 years at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and now is a professor of political science at the State University of New York in Albany. Periodically, he takes a survey of how the town meeting is holding up in the six New England states; he compiled a study in 1983, and is now at work on a new one. Bringing most of the world’s expertise on the town meeting form of government under one roof, the Massachusetts Moderators Association had Prof. Zimmerman as the guest speaker at its annual meeting held at the Crowne Plaza hotel in November.

As more than 100 moderators dined in a banquet room under two large chandeliers that resembled sprawling golden octopi, Prof. Zimmerman read from a paper entitled “The Evolving New England Town Meeting.” A slight man with a longish face, professorial bifocals, graying hair around the temples and a vaguely incongruous amount of dark hair on top of his head, Prof. Zimmerman manages to look something like a dapper accountant.

The professor’s study has found the town meeting to be weakest in Rhode Island and Connecticut. The traditional town meeting holds steady in Vermont and Maine. But the biggest changes are taking place in New Hampshire, where 23 towns have voted to move to a new system in which decisions are made by voters at the polls rather than in an assembled town meeting.

The adoption of the “Official Ballot” method, which has also been discussed in at least one Massachusetts town (see “Discord in Concord,” CommonWealth, Summer 1996) was the subject of a workshop among the moderators earlier in the day. Prof. Zimmerman reported that the Official Ballot drive was set into motion by the Granite State Taxpayers’ Association, which was unhappy with school district decisions being made in the town meeting format. The New Hampshire General Court passed legislation in 1995 allowing the Official Ballot.

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After his remarks, Prof. Zimmerman was asked for his view of the New Hampshire changes. “I have a suspicion voters are going to be very disappointed when they see what’s involved,” he said. We asked him how it came to be that he has specialized in town meeting studies–a topic generally neglected by scholars. He was quick to enumerate his other areas of interest. He has written about interstate relations, has helped draft a constitution for Macedonia, and is the author of Curbing Unethical Behavior in Government.

He acknowledged a strong interest in citizen participation. “I want to promote that in any way I can,” he said. The key question, according to Prof. Zimmerman, is: “How do you keep government accountable?” His conviction is that the greater the participation, the more accountable government tends to be.