Wasn’t That Special!


Well, here you are, reading this. Which I guess means you survived that “special” Town Meeting last week.

I have not lived in Ipswich long, but I have lived here long enough to know the difference between an ordinary Town Meeting and a special one.

  1. The springtime “Annual Town Meeting,” which probably shouldn’t be called “ordinary,” is ordered under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It has to happen. (I don’t know what happens if we don’t have the legally mandated Annual Town Meeting — Tom Murphy goes to jail?)
  2. Technically, any Town Meeting other than the Annual Town Meeting is a “Special” Town Meeting. Traditionally, the Town of Ipswich has held only one Special Town Meeting each year, in the fall. But the truth is, under the law, the Board of Selectmen have the freedom to call a Special Town Meeting anytime they darn well please. They could call a Special Town Meeting every single day if they wanted to. Wouldn’t that be fun!

With the Pony Express land purchase question and the Winthrop single-school location question, however, the Selectmen decided this would be the year for an extra Special Town Meeting.

And it was extra-special, wasn’t it! So popular that traffic backed up practically to Rowley. A Newbury couple in a Kia trying to get to Salt Kitchen for dinner were trapped on High Street, between a Volvo driven by a Groveland woman hoping to visit her sick cousin at Riverbend, and a New Hampshire man in the Ford F-150 trying to smooth things over with his wife by taking her to the Ipswich Inn B&B. The sick woman was well by the time her cousin got there, and the guy in the pickup gave up and pulled into Dairy Queen. That relationship is pretty much over.

I was trapped myself, at an appointment in Merrimacport, and arrived at the Dolan PAC a half-hour late. The High Street parking lot was jammed, with an enormous black Ipswich police vehicle ominously standing guard lest latecomers park illegally. Fortunately my car is very, very small, so I ended up tucking it in between the rear tires of the cruiser and sneaking into the building.

The volunteers manning the voter-sign-in tables were cheery as ever. I picked up my official neon-orange ballot, no problem, and greeted Election Constable Ron Graves at the auditorium door. He smiled his usual constablesque smile, took me by the shoulder, and turned me around with a solemn one-word admonition: “Cafeteria.”

Yes. It was way too late to squeeze into the already-voter-choked auditorium. I was condemned to the outer reaches, the netherworld, of the Extra-Special Town Meeting. And the cafeteria was no less congested. When I arrived in this Meeting Place of the Damned, every little plastic-disc seat securely attached to its sturdy linoleum table was already more than occupied by the ample backside of yet another voter who hadn’t left home early enough to vie for a cushy seat with all the early-birds in the big-people’s room.

A huge screen loomed over the room, a massive continuously morphing image of the goings-on in the beautiful, comfortable, but off-limits auditorium, a presentation clearly designed to taunt us for having arrived late. Town Moderator Tom Murphy looked like a rock star. I kept hoping he would smash a guitar.

In the makeshift cafetorium, those who were lucky enough to have an actual seat leaned smugly on the cafeteria tables, as if to say to rest of us, “I may have been late, but I wasn’t as late as YOU … you SLACKER.”

The rest of the latecomers huddled at the edges of the room, the crust of humanity. Under such dire circumstances, life takes on a kind of new normalcy. As the big-screen debate dragged on, one couple spread a picnic blanket, sat cross-legged, and noshed. People pitched tents, played cards, texted their children at home, traded valuables for scraps of firewood, all the normal activities you’d observe in a refugee camp.

Speaker after speaker came and went on-screen. I grew numb, then dizzy. At some point I seem to remember someone in the auditorium moving to table the motion to move the motion that the motion be tabled. Eventually, our cafeteria confinement got to be too much for some. A woman with eyes bulging had to be wrestled to the floor when she lunged menacing at the screen with a fingernail file. She was frothing at the mouth as we held her down. “Call the question!” she rasped, shuddering. “Call the question!”

I was a fool to think that it would all be over quickly. An “ordinary” Town Meeting might have 20 articles, and takes perhaps four hours. An extra-special gathering like this, then, with only two articles, ought to take about 24 minutes, right? Uh, no.

We were in the process of setting up our own police and fire departments and electing our own mini-Town Manager when it all came to a merciful end. Democracy had done its job. We had survived our time in solitary. But I felt badly for Moderator Murphy. He only makes $250 a year. In a good year, that’s $125 per Town Meeting. This year, with three Town Meetings, we’ve effectively cut him to $83.33 per. Please, Ipswich, have some compassion. Maybe we could take turns delivering meals to his house.




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