What would de Tocqueville think of Baldwin Township?

My only disappointment with the Ground Level project is that by March 9, we’ll have moved our focus to Todd County. And that means I may miss Baldwin’s annual meeting.

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Baldwin held its 2009 annual meeting in its maintenance building — the same place it stores the snow plows. (Image Courtesy of Baldwin Township)

That’s where the town’s residents set the next year’s property tax levy.

When Baldwin was smaller they were sleepy affairs.

“I have been a part of going across the road and getting a husband and wife to come over to the Town Hall, so somebody could make motions and second them, so we could have an annual meeting,” said former Supervisor Jess Hall, who served 27 years on the town board.

But they’re not sleepy anymore. Gavels are pounded. Voices are raised, and the spectacle can drag on for three hours or more.

For your listening pleasure, I assembled some audio highlights along with what some Baldwin residents say about the meetings:

  1. Listen Featured Audio

“Coming to the meeting the first time, it was almost like going to a reality show before reality shows were cool,” resident Dean Kleinhans said.

Some residents are so turned off by the acrimony, they just stay home. But others argue they provide an important forum to keep town leaders in touch with the residents.

“I love the annual meeting,” former Supervisor Elly Rittenour said. “It is chaotic, but it always is when you have 60 people discussing something. At least it gets discussed.”

Alexis de Tocqueville would agree.

“Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within people’s reach; they teach the people how to use and enjoy it,” he wrote in his famous treatise “Democracy in America.”

Some of America’s Founding Fathers shared that admiration of small-town direct democracy. But not all of them did.

“The smaller the society … the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression.” James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers.

Who’s right?

“I think they’re both right,” University of Minnesota law professor Myron Orfield said. “And I think that’s the genius of American democracy.”

One of the choices facing Baldwin is whether to take a step away from the direct democracy de Tocqueville idealized. If Baldwin becomes a city — either by merging with Princeton, or attempting to incorporate — it won’t need annual meetings any more.

City councils can set their tax levy directly; they don’t need to put it up for a vote.

Will Baldwin lose something special if the annual meeting goes away? Or is it something worth losing?

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