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A durable democracy? It’s not debatable

The cherished New England town meeting survives the pandemic

Attendees of the North Andover Town Meeting wore masks and practiced social distancing.
Attendees of the North Andover Town Meeting wore masks and practiced social distancing.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

NORTH ANDOVER — It was a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Sort of.

Hardy New Englanders assembled to exercise the purest form of democracy. Lawyers, painters, mechanics, beauticians, civil servants, and earnest young college students, all dissecting local issues large and small.

But in this season of the pandemic, a treasured New England democratic tradition, the town meeting — like the ones conducted in North Andover since the town was first settled in the 17th century — is playing out like never before.

There are multicolored face masks and carefully spaced black plastic chairs. Microphones are being sanitized in between orations. There are 14-foot-wide walking paths to ensure social distancing. Each chair sits eight feet away from the next.

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Strange, yes. But also something familiar: A careful dissection of the town budget. A vote to support a new Amazon distribution center on Osgood Street. And a democratic quilt of ball caps and shorts, sunglasses, and bottled water.

“Welcome to the first al fresco town meeting since 1646,” Town Moderator Mark DiSalvo told nearly 400 voters who assembled a few days ago under bright late-afternoon skies on the artificial turf of Joe Walsh Stadium, outside the local high school.

It’s a scene that is being replicated across the Commonwealth as the deadly coronavirus has forced communities to rewrite their municipal democratic playbook — and calendar — to address a disease that thrives in crowds.

“People’s right to speak will not be infringed,” said Rebecca Townsend, the town moderator in Longmeadow who is chairwoman of a committee that is advising moderators how to conduct their meetings safely this year. “People have the right to speak and the right to self-govern. And that is preserved.”

Yes it is. Democracy at its purest is being preserved. It just looks like something that your grandparents would never recognize.

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Henry Fink had never seen anything like what greeted him after he checked in at the front table before North Andover’s Town Meeting convened. He’s been attending meetings like this since the Kennedy Administration: 1961, to be precise.

“I’m just interested in my town,” he told me before he found his seat, as he has for 60 years now. “I missed one a couple of years ago on account of the weather.”

But the weather for this year’s meeting was of the sun-splashed variety beloved by local chambers of commerce everywhere.

“It’s always super-interesting to see how many people actually come out and are so passionate about their town,” said Kaitlyn Parks, a 19-year-old American University sophomore who, it seems, has politics in her blood.

She’s the campaign manager for state Representative Christina Minicucci’s first re-election bid. She is a member of the Democratic Town Committee. And she’s wearing a bright-green floral mask.

“It’s a social event,” Parks told me. “It’s awesome. And it definitely brings you back to the feeling of what we learned in elementary school about how democracy was first formed. You learned about the first democracy when everyone went out and voted at the very beginning of America. And that’s definitely what this town is based on.”

That’s precisely how the man with the gavel feels about it.

Except Mark DiSalvo doesn’t carry one.

“I’ve never used a gavel,” DiSalvo said. “It’s the symbol of the moderator and I’ve deliberately chosen not to have a gavel. I want to conduct the meeting with the consent of the meeting itself. The town clerk always says, ‘I’ll bring you a gavel.’ No, thank you. I don’t need one.”

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He’s 65 and has been involved in local politics since he was 15, when he was appointed a member of the Conservation Commission. He graduated from North Andover High School in 1972 and then collected a degree in political studies and economics from the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

At the town meeting lectern, he has the demeanor of a kindly professor who has memorized the minutiae of parliamentary procedure, can deftly steer contentious debate, and knows that a motion to adjourn is not debatable.

“Many people suggest to me that the reason I got elected moderator was to keep me from the floor so I wasn’t the guy who went off in a long-winded fashion about some arcane issue,” he said.

So that’s where he was the other afternoon, off the floor, on the dais, and in control.

When a blizzard of pink voting cards were held aloft on one issue, he declared: “Not a unanimous vote, but an overwhelming vote.”

When Town Meeting voters decided to change the name of the “Selectmen” to the more gender neutral “Select Board,” DiSalvo expressed his approval.

“A welcome and long-due motion to pass,” he said.

Town Manager Melissa Murphy-Rodrigues, called the Amazon distribution center a “big deal” for North Andover.

“It’s $85 million in tax revenue for the town over a 20-year period,” she said. “It’s a huge improvement to the parcel of land that’s currently there.”

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Murphy-Rodrigues has politics in her genes.

“I grew up in Everett, and when I was born my uncle was the mayor,” she said. “I used to go to his office and sit in his chair. Once it’s in your blood, it doesn’t leave.”

Susan Haltmaier knows the feeling. A former selectman — when that title was still allowed — she is also a trained economist and retired public school teacher who’s not afraid to express a contrarian point of view.

“We have people concerned about the virus or have the need to stay quarantined because their health is at risk, including my mother who is in a nursing home,” she said.

But she’s a faithful town meeting attendee. The pandemic would not change that.

“I do take it seriously,” she said. “Absolutely. I cherish it.”

Mark DiSalvo would second a motion like that.

He runs a tight ship. He allows for vigorous debate. He knows when it’s time to move on to what’s next.

He also knows that all work and no play is no fun.

If you were listening closely the other evening, you could hear a slight inflection in his voice when he said this: “Thank you for attending this bellwether experience among town meetings.”

There was a wink and a nod in there somewhere.

Call it Town Meeting humor, a little inside joke between him and Susan Martin, a member of the North Andover Cable TV staff.

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DiSalvo later explained it this way in an e-mail to me:

“A young lady in our local cable team gives me a word 30 seconds before Town Meeting commences with the challenge of using it sometime during the night. I’ve not been stumped yet. Some past words include ‘recherché’ (look it up), ‘eschew’ (I suggested a speaker choose to “eschew obfuscation”), compendium, and cacophony.‘'

And that’s why, if you could see Martin as she operated her camera from her post on the 50-yard line the other evening, you saw a wide smile amid all that talk about debt service, capital improvements, retiree pensions, and money for sewers.

All of it grist with which Norman Rockwell would work magic at his easel, a salute to democracy’s durability.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.