The Town Meeting
We Still Need It
By Mark Smith, Supervisor, Town of Hector, Schuyler County,
Originally Published in the American Agriculturist, March 4, 1939
"Yet all the while in secret, without
The fat worms gnawed the timbers underground.
The twisting worm whose epoch is an hour,
Caverned its way into the mighty tower,
And suddenly it shook, it swayed, it broke,
And fell in darkening thunder at one stroke.
The strong shaft with an angel on its crown,
Fell ruining: a thousand years went down.
And so I fear my country, not the hand
That shall hurl night and whirlwind on the land;
I fear the vermin that shall undermine
Senate and citadel and school and shrine
The worm of greed, the fatted worm of ease,
And all the crawling progeny of these
The vermin that shall honeycomb the towers
And walls of state in unsuspecting hours."
No question will arise in the minds of thinking people with regard to the real meaning of Edwin Markham as expressed in the foregoing lines. Centralization of power is today menacing many of our old fundamental institutions of local government. The desirability of preserving the old township unit of local government is the main subject to be dealt with in this article.
Toulmin Smith in 1851 said, "Local Self Government is that system of government under which the greatest number of minds, knowing the most, and having the fullest opportunities of knowing it, about the special matter in hand, and having the greatest interest in its wellworking, have the management of it, or control over it." Also that "Centralization is that system of government under which the smallest number, and those knowing the least, and having the fewest opportunities of knowing it, about the special matter in hand, and having the smallest interest in its wellworking, have the management of it, or control over it."
Do wenowadaysfully appreciate our township form of government? My boyhood recollection is that men, talking to my father and referring to our town of Hector, spoke with greater pride and respect than is usual today. Our townten miles squarecontaining nearly one-third of the two thousand acres in the County of Schuyler was often spoken of as the State of Hector. As supervisor for the past three years, I have been afforded an opportunity to study, first hand, the operation of this large town, which had its first town meeting in 1802, and to observe the strength and value of this old institution.
Experience and observation lead me to say that we should be alert to use every effort to retain and preserve the principles of this old type of local government. This is the day of the political and professional reformer, and their motives are not always to be trusted from our standpoint. Whenever the work REFORM shows up with regard to town and county government it is time to be on guard because some old valued heritage may be in jeopardy. The interests of the metropolitan area and those of the up-state section are not always identical.
Loss of local power or control and greater expense are two almost inevitable results of reforms in local government set-ups. A high authority has been quoted as saying that the township unit is the most efficient and economical unit of government now in use.
The town board is the policy-making body of the town and administers the affairs of the town. The local town unit protects the health, the person and property of the citizens; administers relief; and maintains the highways. The local school districts provide education. Thus the fundamental needs of the people are supplied by the local units of government. The town board is answerable to the electorate, which is the true fountainhead of local government. The town clerk and assessors may be elected or appointed. The work of collector may be done by others. Great care should be exercised in the selection of the justices of the peace because today, with the increased demands of the people, their position is of increasing importance.
In our town, instead of the usual four, we have five justices of the peace. The responsible nature of the justice's position has been mentioned, yet in our town the total per diem pay of the five justices in 1938 was $292.00
I am indebted to the Secretary of the Association of Towns for information regarding a case of county reform, which shows how it is apt to turn out. In a certain county of the state of New York, the office of justice of the peace was abolished in the towns of the county. The total combined salary of the justices of the peace per year was $3,500.00. Under the new charter a district court was established with six justices who receive $8,000.00 each per year.
As chairman of a town board, I have come to complete respect for the collective judgment of the justices with regard to matters of town business that come before the board. Our board consists of four farmers and a garage owner who is also a farmer The taxpayer's viewpoint is really the deciding viewpoint in the last analysis. The citizen of a community is the most important thing in a community. If local control is to be retained, efficiency will have to be the main consideration. There is nothing that disgusts the substantial citizen like the existence of petty politics. Sometimes in county affairs officers imagine they are the county if they are allowed to stay in office too long. Such a situation has a peculiar effect on their ego.
The receipt by the smaller units of government of so-called state aid is something that is fraught with danger to the preservation of local control. There is an entanglement, or in ordinary language a "tail," to such transactions. The "tail" is loss of some of the local control. Such processes are insidiousthey work slowly yet surely. It is the working of the law of compensation, which is a universal law. If you do not pay for somethingyou do not get the real article. You get a semblance of it. Most smart people prefer to step up and pay.
"Home rule" was not lightly gained and should not be lightly lost. It is a long time since Col. Richard Nicolls, the first governor of the English colony of New York, called a general meeting of deputies at Hempstead on March 1, 1665. The taxpayers of the towns elected the representatives. The Duke's Laws were worked out at this convention, in which home rule by the people was recognized in principle and later worked out in a manner quite similar to our present system.
In the preamble of the first state constitution in 1777 we find: "This convention therefore, in the name and by the authority of the good people of this state, doth ordain, determine, and declare, that no authority shall, on any pretense whatever, be exercised over the people or members of this state, but such as shall be derived from and granted by them."
I think we need to watch that thought"ON ANY PRETENSE WHATEVER," and take the hint from the Duke's Laws of 1665 that:
"In perticuler Townes many things do arise which concerne onely themselves."
Hollen C. Smith of Trumansburg, N.Y., shared his father's foresight by submitting this article.