The  FTM – Democracy at Work

by | May 12, 2020

Above: The Financial Town Meeting at the end of its run, in the auditorium of East Greenwich High School, started with pomp and circumstance supplied by the Kentish Guard Fife & Drum Corps and police and fire honor guards.

Until 2016, every spring the budget for Town of East Greenwich went to the Financial Town Meeting (aka FTM) for passage before becoming the law of the … town. But in November 2015, voters approved a local referendum abolishing the FTM. Now the Town Council (who we elect) has the final say. 

By Bruce Mastracchio

Financial Town Meetings used to take place at the old Town Hall, now the parking lot next to Civil.

Back in old East Greenwich we got exposed at an early age to participatory government through two venues. One was the Fire District annual meeting and the other was the Financial Town Meeting. Even as kids we could sit in the spectator seats and watch the fireworks. People took their civic duty seriously in those days and there was a lot of give and take.

The Financial Town Meeting was/is perhaps one of the purest forms of democracy in action. It is not the purest. Again, the Native Americans had that. Ben Franklin garnered many of his ideas for our constitution from the laws of the Haudenosaunee, the People of the Longhouse, The Iroquois Confederacy.

On the plains the western tribes were free to choose their leader, and the ideas or actions that best suited them.

Sometimes after a disagreement about a decision the tribe might split into two or three segments with each segment following the person whose ideas most coincided with theirs.

Then there is the Financial Town Meeting, the second purest form, I feel.  When I went there and sat in the visitor’s section I was exposed to some pretty hefty vocal battles between people with divergent ideas about how to spend our money, what or where to build or how to do this or that. It was informative and very entertaining.

However, in those days, politics and taxes, were not the first thing on my mind, so my recollection of those particular issues is spotty at best.

But Bill Corr and Howard Benson have seen town meetings through five or six decades, so I will bow to their memories of those democratic (actually Republican) times.

They told me that way back, the town meetings were held in the old Town Hall on Main Street. It was a beautiful old building, and stood next to Woolworth’s Five and Dime. That spot is a parking lot now (the house of my youth was behind it – now gone ) and Woolworth’s morphed from itself to Bud Gallup’s to The Troll Shop.

According to my sources only 5 or 10 people used to show up for the Financial Town Meeting in those days. The room couldn’t hold many more than that anyway. Those few people controlled the finances for the entire town! In those days EG had a population of around 3,000 people.

“They held the meetings in the morning, too!” Mr. Benson informed me. ” So most people were at work.”

“Ed Coleman and Ned Murray presided. They were not well attended. Kind of small. I always thought it would be better if the whole town was represented, but that’s how it went back in those days.”

Ellsworth G. Harding was the town moderator back then and eventually they moved the meetings to the Swift Gym.

Just like today, the School Department budget and its ideas provided for a lot of fireworks. Back in 1955 it was proposed that the town build a new high school for the kids in town. This idea brought forth ideas, action, reaction and a lot of hard feelings.

(I know my father was against it). Some people my father included) wanted the high school (The Academy) to stay in town and they wanted to refurbish and renovate it. The Academy was quaint and centrally located in those days, and in my thinking on it now, I wish they had done it. They could have demolished Winsor and put a three-story brick building there. Put two-story wings out from the Main Building, refurbished Eastman, fixed up and graded the Quaker Lot and maybe bought a couple of the nearby houses to utilize for their purposes. It would have been unique and different from the concrete, brick and glass structures everyone else had.

Other people wanted land condemned to save the town money. Students marched around with signs chanting for their cause (I was one of them, opposed my father, now agree with him, but at the time had no idea what I was doing).

The new school lost the vote the first time but came back and won the second time around and the new high school was built on Cedar Avenue (it’s not the site of Cole Middle School).

Ten years later the issue came up again and another “new” high school was built up on Middle Road. A lot of people were upset over that!

“It was different back then,” Corr said. “Everybody knew everybody else, and there were some good battles that went on.”

Harry Lewis led the Frenchtown delegation back then and he would get them out to vote if the issue called for it. “Tar” Ucci used to come up from “below the hill” with a bevy of “his boys.” They usually represented the democrats in town as did Mary Ucci and Walter Hazard.

Some of the meetings lasted an hour. Some stretched longer. But, until recently, none of them stretched to three or four days as one of the FTMs did in the 70s and 80s.

There were some real heated arguments. Some almost came to blows, but not quite. There’d be screaming and hollering and points and counterpoints. It never came to actual  blows, but some that I witnessed as a youth were on the verge (even more so at the Fire District meetings). In the end, usually, cooler heads prevailed.

Bill Corr took over as moderator in 1948. He held the position until 1952. He came back again in the 1970s and held it until the early ‘90s.

In the last 15 years or so, other concerned but colorful individuals made the FTM a better place to be. George Battey enlivened many a meeting as did such concerned citizens as Gino Brusci, Walt Casey, Jack Bradshaw, Mike Zaino and others. For many years the thrust was against the town spending practices.

Memorable battles were fought over building a town parking lot, building a new library, new police cruisers and a host of other things like new town halls, police stations and such.

More recently the spotlight has been on the School Committee, which has an ever expanding budget.

After years of no cuts to their budgets, they have been catching the brunt of attention in recent years, and have suffered some reductions for the first time ever. 

Still, whether the focus is on the town, the School Committee, the most recent issue, or, the characters who attend, the FTM was a most interesting evening. Or, evenings.

It was democracy in its second purest  and many years it was better than television.

Me, I favor a benevolent dictatorship (emphasis on benevolent) myself, with me as dictator. But, I wouldn’t miss the FTM for the world … if it were still in existence. 

So sad.

Bruce Mastracchio grew up in East Greenwich, where he experienced those 28-hour days and 8-day weeks, which contained the magic that made his hometown so special. Included in all that were the numerous characters that added color to the local life and produced many of Bruce’s remarkable stories.


 

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4 Comments

  1. Judy Stenberg

    I enjoyed the town meetings and well remember Gino Brusci’s thorough knowledge of every penny in the town budget. My favorite was the time when one political party was successful in stopping the removal of a large sum from the budget. After their victory they left en masse. A little while later a motion was made to restore the money and it passed. The story doesn’t end there. It was late and by law had to be recessed and reconvened on a later date. You have probably guessed that the funds were removed again at the reconvening of the meeting and everyone stayed until the meeting was over.

    Reply
  2. Mark Thompson

    Great memories, Bruce. Thanks for writing!

    Reply
  3. MaryAnne Gorman Carpenter

    You’ve mentioned some names and relatives above that I grew up with many moons ago. George Battey is my age and we went to school together but Bill Corr, Harold Benson, Tar Ucci and others were cronies of my parents Will and Ruth Gorman. Our kitchen on Prospect Street was the planning ground for many a town decision.

    Reply
    • Elizabeth McNamara

      I live on Prospect Street – what was your address?

      Reply

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