Democracy is the worst form of government except for
all those others that have been tried.
- Winston Churchill
Last night I spent over five hours in the car, driving through a nasty snow storm, so I could attend a township annual meeting in Corinna Township. While I'm not going to get into what I said in my 15-minute presentation (sorry TS), I do want to say a few things about township meetings.
Once a year in Minnesota, townships hold an annual meeting that is open to all property owners. It is direct democracy at its finest, with binding motions and resolutions coming from anyone on the floor, subject to immediate vote. Anyone can propose just about anything. A majority vote rules.
While it might sound like chaos, and sometimes it might look like it, township annual meetings - and the governance that comes from them - work really well. Residents make the decisions, and live with the consequences. I've seen townships have excellent policy debates, covering all perspectives and interests, in a way that a city or county never could. It is fun to watch.
That being said, I've also seen townships do really stupid things at annual meetings. But again, people live with the consequences. With the direct democracy of a township, these bad decisions tend to work themselves out over time. People know they can show up and actually be heard, so they do. They also know who to blame for poor decisions (themselves).
We've spent a lot of time at Community Growth Institute discussing the best roles for different levels of government. In Minnesota, there is certainly an important policy role for counties. Assuming competency and transparency, the most effective planning is done at a county or regional level. Implementation on the other hand, especially day-to-day decision-making, works really well in a township government where the bureaucracy is closer to the people. Where counties and towns work together, the system can work incredibly well.
There are times like these, driving home after a meeting, when I can't help but think of Samuel Adams getting the Sons of Liberty together for a town hall meeting in Boston. These were people that started our country and, truth be told, there was nothing extraordinary about most of them in terms of intellect or education. But they met frequently, debated a ton of critical issues and, in the end, made some of the most extraordinary decisions - decisions that ultimately sparked the American Revolution.
And even though Thomas Jefferson was cut from a different clothe and really had little time for Samuel Adams (or his brother John, whom he defeated to become the third president), it was Jefferson's vision that created the six-mile by six-mile grid that we experience in Minnesota as the township. There is no question that Jefferson envisioned township meetings similar to the one I attended last night and the ones going on across the entire state. Government of the people.
To make sure this is not all rose-colored glasses, I am going to offer the following video. While I was not at the meeting shown in this clip, I can close my eyes and picture many that I have been at that had this tone. Democracy is messy, but in the end it works. I love being part of it.