Carrying on a Civic Tradition in Rye, New Hampshire
Throughout history there are many examples of citizens taking an active role in the governance of their communities. In the Agora of ancient Athens, the marketplace below the Acropolis, residents engaged in lively debate about the issues of the day, exercising their obligation as citizens. The early years of the Roman Republic saw the Senate provide one model for representative government where people felt their views were taken seriously and they had some access to those in power.
In decentralized medieval Europe, communal life and cooperative societies were common. English Common Law and the Magna Charta of the 1100s and 1200s added more foundational principles for building open societies. The early self-government of the Swiss cantons, protected by Swiss neutrality, further enhanced these principles. But it was Enlightenment political philosophers and writers such as John Locke and others who laid the foundation for the revolutionary upheavals of the 1700s and 1800s. The end of colonialism and empire in the 1900s forged more republican forms of government that we see in some parts of the world today.
Colonists in early America took note of the egalitarian decision making of native peoples, a time-honored tradition in many parts of the world. This knowledge and the parish meeting practice they brought from England, led to the creation of the annual New England town meeting, a strong form of early democracy on the local level where citizens and not elites made the decisions. On a daily basis, taverns were civic gathering places for debate and the sharing of ideas. By the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville noted that collective civic groups were dealing with many challenges in the new nation, an emerging unofficial fourth branch of government, as non-profit organizations are often recognized today. During the twentieth century, many Americans continued to organize locally and nationally to tackle issues on their own, lobby to improve local government performance, promote civic activity and raise public awareness about critical community issues.
Rye Town Hall
History of the Rye Civic League
By the late 1950s and 1960s the modern civil rights movement had forged a crucible of questioning authority and had spawned many other political movements. People paid more attention to local government and volunteered to serve on town boards to meet rising challenges. It was during this decade in Rye, New Hampshire, that full zoning was enacted, and the Conservation Commission, Historic District Commission and Recreation Commission were established. Residents were going to board meetings to contribute their ideas and engage in the challenges of the day. Three of those civic-minded people were Frances Holway, Joan La France and Marjorie Miller.
These three politically active women realized that the average resident did not know what was going on in town since there was no formal town government communication with the people beyond the annual town report and what they observed at the annual town meeting. In 1968 they established the Rye Civic League (RCL) for the purpose of educating townspeople about Rye town government. The league published a monthly Town News which reported on town board meetings and other issues facing the town. The publication was mailed to paying members and distributed in brightly colored red bags in different locations in town.
The RCL quickly became a catalyst for active citizens and the three founders made a lasting contribution to Rye civic life. Holloway was a go-getter and provided the basement workspace and mimeograph machine. Miller was the main Town News editor and kept it going in the waning years. La France was very knowledgeable about legal affairs as well as the New Hampshire state laws and the “Revised Statutes Annotated” (NH RSA) and was often the most intelligent person in the room during Board of Selectman and Planning Board meetings. In 1992 the RCL disbanded, along with the Town News, due to low membership and lack of volunteers.
From 1998 to 2002 an ad hoc group called the “Concerned Citizens of Rye” organized around certain issues, but the monthly Town News was sorely missed, and citizens were less informed. The lack of such an oversight group was evident when the new safety building (2004) did not get the public scrutiny it deserved. Structural and legal problems with the building ensued and cost the town unnecessary expenses. Upon my retirement in 2009 I paid more attention to town affairs and remembered my time as Town News co-editor. I could see a clear need for more voter education, so I revived the Rye Civic League. The catalyst was a proposed development which had people up in arms, but not well informed about the dates of the town board meetings dealing with it. After a modest beginning, a core of dedicated and skilled residents emerged. By 2011 RCL was editing and publishing a monthly online newsletter, the Rye Civic News.
Rye Civic News, March 2022
This newsletter is now emailed to over 1,400 residents (Rye has 4,705 registered voters out of about 5,500 residents). With people so busy and with so many town meetings to pay attention to, this newsletter delivers key points in a digestible format that enables residents to stay informed and become more active in civic life. The Civic News provides links for more detailed information that is posted on RCL’s website, as well as to the town’s website. Over 50 percent of recipients open the Civic News e-newsletter each month. 20 percent to 40 percent of those people click on at least one link to get more information with an average of 2 to 3 clicks per person. Leading up to the 2022 town election, the newsletter was opened by 66 percent of recipients. As a result of the civic league’s efforts, voter participation in the town election has increased from a low of 20 percent in 2009 to over 30 percent over the last decade. Much work still needs to be done to increase those numbers to the level of the national election.
RCL is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and cannot advocate for any candidate or ballot measure. It presents unbiased reporting of events including both sides of controversial issues and important questions that are raised which are often not found in official minutes. The Civic News provides more detailed information than any other publication.
The Rye Citizens Handbook has filled a large gap in citizen education. Prior to the RCL creating it in 2013, no document existed to help people understand how small-town government works. The handbook is funded by local businesses and updated by RCL annually. Additional voter education is provided through RCL’s annual public warrant article (individual decisions voters make) presentation and financial analysis of the town and school budgets. While the town provides a year-to-year financial comparison, the RCL analysis covers the past five or ten years. The presentation also includes an analysis of the twenty to forty warrant articles with a condensed table for easy access to facts. As a non-partisan group, the RCL hosts a Candidate’s Night prior to every town election as well as one for statewide elections.
To produce the monthly Civic News, RCL members attend meetings, watch recorded videos or read draft meeting minutes of public meetings, then create the short digestible key points for residents. Links to minutes, recorded videos or to more detail make it easier for voters to learn more. The Civic News leads with the top 10 issues of the previous month for those who will not read “below the fold” of the email newsletter, and in 2021 added a YouTube summary, also shared to various town Facebook groups of those ten issues to make for less reading and a more dynamic experience. RCL intends to continue creating short videos to provide information and insight into issues facing town residents. All these RCL services are provided by volunteers.
RCL has a Board of Directors, an annual meeting and a monthly business meeting followed by an open forum discussion at the public library or at a local restaurant to make meetings more appealing. The open forum meeting provides a place to discuss town issues or get assistance on dealing with town boards. RCL members are well-informed on town zoning ordinances. Civic league members have compiled a large number of bite-sized histories of Rye political events which provide a quick perspective for those researching current issues.
Recently RCL sponsored special forums such as "Challenges Facing Water in Rye" and “History of Housing Developments and the Future of Development in Rye.” In May of 2022 the league will make an interactive presentation on environmental issues facing the town to all the students in the Rye Junior High School. Teachers will be provided with access to all our documents as a follow up to this presentation in hopes there will be some good curriculum integration.
What RCL does with the Civic News is a form of “citizen journalism,” a grassroots movement that is on the rise in the US, making good efforts to fill the gap in local news. See: National Association for Citizen Journalism, www.nacj.us, and following by the late Jack Driscoll, of Rye, New Hampshire. His book, Couch Potatoes Sprout: The Advent of On-line Community Journalism and an article published by the MIT Media lab where he was a resident from 1995- 2008, “The Handbook for Citizen Journalists: Catching the Journalistic Attitude.” Currently, the RCL “Civic News” focuses only on short, objective statements with links to town board meetings only, with no feature articles and no advocacy, but other forms of community journalism do include those features. In the future, RCL may expand its offerings to include analysis and commentary and letters to the editor, just as one used to find in rapidly disappearing daily newspapers. There are many “news deserts” in the country and on-line journalism can help fill the gap.
Rye Civic League costs are modest and include the website, post office box, state fees to Attorney General and Secretary of State, additional printing of the Rye Citizen’s Handbook, other printing costs and related expenses. The most expensive items are “Constant Contact” for publishing to the distribution list and a PO Box. Recipients of the Civic News are asked to contribute $12 a year ($1 a month) and become “a member.” RCL has found that several members contribute way beyond the $12 minimum.
How to Create a Civic League in Your Community
As in Rye in 1968 or again in 2009, every community has politically active people on the local level. To start a civic league in your town, hold an organizational meeting of people who attend and speak at town board meetings and deliberative sessions, write letters, volunteer in town groups, and be sure there is at least one native or long-time resident in the group to provide perspective and town political history. Share the documents from the Rye Civic League before the meeting by going to www.ryecivicleague.org and clicking on 'How to Start a Civic League.'
The first gathering must begin with a general discussion and agreement of the need for a civic league. Discuss goals, tasks and obstacles. Early in the process, or before the first newsletter, inform local elected officials and board or commission-members your intent as well as having an article in the local newspaper and on local Facebook and other community forums. A civic league must be a transparent organization and while no such group, or government body for that matter, is ever immune from bias, the league needs to strive to be non-partisan.
The new league should be promoted as a formal membership organization from the outset in order to support overhead such as fees to state government, domain name for web site, PO Box, printing costs, platform server for distribution list monthly newsletter, (Mail Chimp is a free alternative, as Constant Contact costs over $500 per year). If a low membership fee is set, many members will contribute beyond that as an annual donation. Word of mouth, other town organization lists and social media will help grow the new league’s distribution list and gain more members in the process.
The board structure of four officers should be complemented by at least three or more other board members, each with a responsibility to head up and seek volunteers for support on those efforts. There needs to be a critical mass of people, (board, volunteers, members) who are “in the loop” on league efforts as well as town issues. Once organized, do not wait to apply for IRS “501 (c)(3)” non- profit status. There is someone in all communities who can help with this process.
The skills needed for the league to be successful are clear: editing and publishing the newsletter, note-taking at board meetings, social media, film segments for newsletter and building and maintaining the web site. All volunteers must become familiar with how local boards operate as well as the existing zoning ordinances. Creating a citizen’s handbook is a good first step and a very visible contribution for the new league. Good public relations on all levels are necessary, especially at all public gatherings where information on the league may be distributed and questions answered.
Cities can adapt and create civic leagues for different neighborhoods to focus on local issues as well as those more city or county wide. Communities with strong county governments will also benefit from a league by reporting on both county and town council actions. The specific actions of the Rye Civic League provide a foundation by which any community can adapt a league to suit their needs.
Finally, it is important to become educated about the political history of your community through annual town and city reports, historic newspaper archives and interviewing long-time residents. Become informed about current challenges facing the town such as environmental issues, housing, schools, over- development, enforcement of zoning ordinances, effectiveness of town boards, hiring practices of local government, etc.
Based on the Rye experience, the benefits of a civic league are self-evident, the most important being that citizens will have free monthly access to comprehensive information on local government. That can be transformative for any community.
During the late twentieth century, interest in local civic affairs began to wane in favor of following national political ideologies and personalities associated with them. Partisan divides began influencing local issues. This shift was a great loss for local democracy because prior to that time, people in New England and beyond were engaged in direct democracy through annual town meeting debate and elections as well as public hearings and city council meetings and running for these public offices. People were more active in influencing decisions that impacted residents.
There are grassroots civic organizations in most communities that are often driven by one issue such as a controversial development proposal or controlling taxes. The last such single-issue group in Rye was a well-organized “Save Rye Harbor” group in 2010 that opposed a housing development, but it disbanded after the development was approved. Few other groups in the country do what the Rye Civic League does - providing monthly, comprehensive coverage of town government through a free newsletter. The survival of democracy at the local level needs this kind of civic league, especially because daily newspapers and especially radio stations have been gutted of local news.
The RCL will soon try to help a neighboring town to start a league. Its model could be disseminated in the United States via a grant or other means. The Rye Civic League has a 35-year history of living up to the public obligation of those Greek citizens 2500 years ago, debating and influencing decisions in the shadow of the Acropolis.
Alex Herlihy is a native of Rye, New Hampshire, a retired high school history teacher and former co-editor of the Town News of the original Rye Civic League. He revived the league in 2009 and currently serves as its vice president.
Reprinted with permission from the National Civic Review, Carrying on a Civic Tradition in Rye, New Hampshire, BACK TO SPRING 2022: VOLUME 111, NUMBER 1