"The Year of the First Step"
(March 25, 2002 - March 24, 2003)
Restoring the "Annual 'town meeting' Forum"

After more than a decade of preparation, the groundwork1 to restore an "Annual 'town meeting' Public Forum" in the month of March was laid out on February 8, 1999 --- the 235th anniversary of Newburyport's first town meeting. That milestone fell on a regularly scheduled City Council meeting when then Mayor Mary Carrier was to make her State of the City address. To mark the occasion, Ward 3 Councillor Karen Kelley made an historical presentation on City Council floor, introduced as a Motion of Comity and announced by Council President Brenda Reffett. At-large Councillor John W. Pramberg made complementary remarks in a point of personal privilege.

[At the time, former Ward 5 City Councillor Brenda Reffett served as City Council President. That sitting council included Al Lavender (who later served a mayoral term from 2002-2003), Mike Costello (who went on to higher officer, serving as State Representative for Newburyport, Amesbury and Salisbury), Joseph Sullivan (who served as City Solicitor under Mayor Lavender's administration), John W. Pramberg (who retired from public service in 2003) and Audrey McCarthy (the only one of the five councilors-at-large remaining on the city council). Joining Kelley and Reffett as ward councillors on that sitting council: Ward 1 Councillor Bruce Brown, Ward 2 Councillor John Norris, then and present Ward 4 Councillor Erford Fowler and Ward 6 Councillor Tom O'Brien (who presently serves consecutive terms as City Council President). (Note: Since its 1851 charter, the City of Newburyport has spelled "councillor" with the additional "l."]

The presentation referenced a prepared manuscript which had been distributed to each public official, and made available to the general public and the press. The document was an annotated transcript of the Waterside people's remonstrance to the General Court to establish the Waterside (Third Parish) of Newbury as the separate town of Newburyport (link within). On the chamber wall was the city seal with its banner "Terra Marique" meaning "the Waterside" --- and the term was translated for the audience during the presentation.

With this past as a prologue, the draft explored ways for city council to better franchise citizens of the Waterside in the New Millennium. A footnote in the annotations cited a passage in Section 20 of the original 1851 City Charter as a means of restoring the annual March town meeting and other such forums. The energy in the City Hall Auditorium during the High Street meeting held on February 4, 1999 (the prior Thursday) was used as an example of community participation in "town meeting."

It was further noted that in the New Millennium Year 2001 --- Newburyport would celebrate the Sesquicentennial (150th) Anniversary of its establishment as a city form of government --- a celebration which would coincide with the city's year-long Master Plan which would begin in 2000. It followed that Newburyport might honor the occasion by renewing the traditional democratic forum --- the "annual March town meeting" --- added to the budgetary process that commences in March of each year.

The following day, an editorial in the local paper of record reported the councillor's and mayor's presentations about the past and the present respectively, and promoted the community's pursuit of the future --- encouraging both the continued active participation of citizenry and improved ways to better communicate and participate as a community.

Thereafter, the Motion of Comity gained steady momentum at City Council meetings with points of personal privilege to cite an historical or contemporary milestone. This served as a means to provide both councillors and constituents a progress or benchmark report --- "forwarded in a Motion of Comity" by Councillor Kelley, who sat on the committee to plan the city's Sesquicentennial (150th) celebration and the Master Plan Steering committee during Mayor Lisa Mead's administration.

With its motto Shaping Our Future, Honoring our Past --- the Master Plan was considered a successful initiative, though by definition such plans focus on the physical plant of a community and address planning and development and maintenance of community assets. Outside of the scope of the project, instruments must be instituted to facilitate community --- its prosperity and progress --- as an ongoing community in the work --- the ongoing conversation.

While the Master Plan open public meeting in March 2001 focused primarily on topics specific to that effort --- the dynamic in City Hall Auditorium would further energize the movement to restore the "annual town meeting" the following year. What was missing in that situation however, was a role for the city's elected officials, so constituents might directly interact with their representatives, and make recommendations regarding local government: the interactive communication between the parties that comprise The Third Estate.

(The then) Mayor Lisa Mead seemed a willing partner should councilors pursue passage of an order to reinstate an annual March town meeting after the city's sesquicentennial celebrations. In the fall, there were hopes to unfold this (pro)Motion of Comity in concert with an improved city website. As a candidate for mayor, Al Lavender was supportive of the idea, much as he had been as a Councillor-at-Large in February of 1999, when this Motion of Comity was launched.

A Sesquicentennial "cerebration" planned to impart the concept in the fall of 2001 was waylaid by national circumstances of great magnitude. Come November, the outcome of local general elections would bring a change in some of the players. Mayor Mead deferred to the incoming leadership --- and promising open communications in his administration, Mayor-Elect Lavender demonstrated a willingness to support the measure should it be approved by the City Council the following spring. During this transition, the former mayor Mary Carrier (Mare on the Air) offered the Waterside movement momentum during WNBP's "Top of the Morning" radio broadcast on Sunday mornings with herself and Finin O'Riordan.

By the time Councillor Kelley made a Motion of Comity to formally restore a form of the annual town meeting in March at the City Council meeting on February 11, 2002 --- citing three benchmarks in Newburyport's history in her remarks --- the City Council was unanimously supportive. Mayor Lavender approved of the order and an ad hoc committee was formed to set things in motion. The first Annual March Forum actually took place on May 9, 2002 and is captured for posterity in a Chain of Events linked to this website ---

[At the time, the City Council President was Ward 4 City Councillor Erford Fowler. The sitting City Council included Councillors-at-Large Audrey McCarthy, John W. Pramberg, Bert Reed, Joseph Spaulding and Mark Griffin, Ward 1 Councillor Dave McFarlane, Ward 2 Greg Earls, Ward 3 Councillor Karen Kelley, Ward 4 Councillor Erford Fowler, Ward 5 Councillor Brenda Reffett and Ward 6 Councillor Tom O'Brien.]

While the month was May and the format was designed to suit a city form of representational government --- and though having much in common with the Waterside people's timeless agenda, the issues concerned the present and future --- the first Annual Public "town meeting" Forum revived the Spirit, the Sense of Place and Sense of Purpose of the annual March town meetings of the past. Although that first experiment was scheduled later in the budgetary process than desired, good use was made of the Mayor's budget analyses. (To quote Thomas Jefferson, "information is the currency of democracy.") However, it was evident that the 2003 forum should be arranged earlier in the spring, so issues might be heard before the mayor's budget is prepared.

In truth, despite its schedule on the calendar --- given Webster's definition of "march" --- the term applies in every sense of the word. With the noun defined as the distance covered with a specific period of time, forward movement or progress; and the verb, to proceed or to make progress --- it was indeed the First Annual "March" Forum. It offered citizens and representatives the means to address community issues in a productive way: A new style of an old style annual March town meeting. And in a New Millennium, it began an annual term (or benchmark) by measure of the old style civil/legal calendar year (from March 25, 2002 through March 24, 2003.)

With this regular timeline, the continued tradition of an Annual Public "town meeting" Forum in March will offer the opportunity for valuable input from the community during a critical time in the municipal fiscal calendar. Although no "warrants" would be voted into law, citizens can voice their concerns and influence their city representatives on issues large and small, and assess progress with their own annual benchmark. Furthermore, with March removed from the city's political cycle, the process provides continuity for the community --- the polis, the body politic --- from year to year. It will prove most productive when both representatives and constituents are actively involved in the process: Community Interactivism at its best.

As for other terms that complement this theme --- the root of the word "forum" (from the Latin, fores "door" and foris "open" embellished a leaflet to dedicate the "The Forum Tree" on May 26, 2002. The tree was planted to commemorate the community presence at the first Annual Public Forum and in memory of all generations who helped form the Waterside community. The tree would be rededicated on May 18, 2003 --- to coincide with the rededication of the "historic wayes to the Waterside" and restored boardwalk. And it is hoped that The Forum Tree and the Annual Public "town meeting" Forum will flourish for years to come --- budding to bloom each spring and bear fruit each fall.

At the conclusion of the First Annual Public Forum, a constituent remarked the experience as a "good first step." That comment reinforced the reference to "The Year of the First Step" for the "march" or progress between the old style legal/civil calendar year from March 25, 2002 - March 24, 20032 --- strides made in a Motion of Comity.3

The Fourth Estate picked up a thread in an editorial to frame the First Annual March Forum as "enlightenment that will show us the way." Until the improved city website is in place, this site is in itself the first tentative step toward better communication and enlightenment --- as a "community in the work" in progress.


1 The foundation for the Annual Public Forum is paved on a strong footing. The practice of an Annual Public Forum held each March is firmly established in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' original charter. A passage in that 1629 Massachusetts Bay Charter offered freeholders the means to experiment in self-government of the colonial municipalities when the British Crown was otherwise occupied with civil and world unrest.

2 The timeline for the Annual "March town meeting" Public Forum is based upon the old style (Julian) calendar that marked the legal/civil new year beginning on March 25th. The old style Julian calendar was in place in Britain and its colonies until 1752 and was one of the four terms (Hillary, Easter, Trinity and Michaelmas) specified in the Massachusetts Bay Charter which followed the liturgical calendar, itself a lunar-based calendar.

3 For insight (and hindsight) about the progress of this movement, please review "The Waterside in a Motion of Comity." Advance and advise the progress as one of the Waterside people of today by helping to pave "The Year of the Better Way."

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