At town meeting, solving conflicts big and small

Hello from North Haven!

Saturday was our annual town meeting. That’s meant different things over the twelve years I’ve been on island. Sometimes it’s an all-day affair, with coffee and muffins giving way to chili as noon approaches at a fundraiser table. Lately the emphasis has been on efficiency and brevity, rather than all-out debate.

This morning, over a hundred voters and several of their young offspring gathered in our community building, formerly the school gym and currently the home of the North Haven Y. Folks occupied folding chairs under the basketball hoop, and once they filled up, the rest scattered themselves amongst the stationary bikes and ellipticals. Those of us with small children in tow occupied the perimeter of the room.

Bill, Pen and I started out against a wall with a few other kids. Surrounded by friends, she immediately stripped off her boots, coat, hat, cowl and mittens and spread them out around her in a cold-weather gear blast radius. Next came a penumbra of colored pencils. She was quietly occupied until the time came for the first paper ballot vote, to fill two open seats on the board of selectmen. We jumped into the line hand in hand, and shuffled along until we got to the ballot table. Not wanting to be accused of stuffing the ballot box, I declined her request for a slip of paper. We made a counter-clockwise loop up to the ballot box and she barely paused long enough for me to cast my vote. We looped back around to square one.

Pen went quietly back to coloring for a while. She noticed, after a time,  that we were raising our hands at regular intervals for non-paper ballot votes. She got in on the game. I loved her solemnity and the feeling of unity she seemed to have with the community.

A Nikki McClure sticker from Hello Hello books captured Pen’s first attempt at civic engagement

That lasted until about Article 24, whereupon she decided to take a little cruise around the room. She marched proudly from one friend to the next, showing off her colored pencils and the frog wallet she had brought to keep them in, practicing the world’s loudest whisper.

Next, she discovered the tiny play area at the Y. The star attraction is an orange plastic rocking fish, as opposed to a rocking horse. A school friend was on it. Pen was displeased. I intervened, loudly whispering myself, hoping to not distract from a lively discussion about town float improvements. Her friend hopped off the rocker. Pen hopped on and scootched the fish out of its corral and on an adventure around the gym. Her friend came running back to intervene. They had the world’s quietest argument, punctuated by embarrassed shushes from all parents when the decibel level crept up.

Ironically, debate had begun an article I felt personally invested in, funding appropriation for our preschool. We lost our Headstart funding a while back, and the excellent program has been funded through tuition, fundraising, donations and a moderate appropriation since then. Voters had some questions, though, and I wanted to hear the discussion. Instead I was refereeing another debate between two of the kids who benefit from the program.

Pen and her friend reached an accord, brokered by an older kid friend with a box of cool toys. The townspeople, mercifully unswayed by the minor chaos at the back of the room, approved the article with only a little opposition.

While it would have been easier to leave Pen with a babysitter (heads up, North Haven teens – you would make a killing setting up some sort of play time during town meeting), I wanted her to see the nitty gritty work that makes a town function. The tedium of voting with raised hands for 70+ articles, the ritual circling of the paper ballots, the discussion and debate, the auctioneer-like patter of the moderator trying to maintain momentum. After two hours, when we finally bundled ourselves back into the car, we checked in with Pen.

“Hey, what do you do when someone says all those in favor?”

Her hand shot straight up into the air. I hope she votes as enthusiastically – in favor or in opposition – every opportunity she gets.

Courtney Naliboff

About Courtney Naliboff

In addition to this blog, I'm a contributing writer to, a Jewish parenting site, a blogger and book reviewer for, and the author of Salt Water Cure, a column in Working Waterfront. I report news from North Haven for Working Waterfront and Island Journal, and was a speaker at the Maine Conference for Jewish Life in 2015. Follow Frozen Chosen on facebook or visit my Web site for more writing and free music to download!