Government: Cradle Of Democracy

This week nearly 2,000 residents of Concord, Mass., will skip "American Idol" to spend their evenings in the school auditorium, debating an extension to the town's sewer line. Town meetings are a New England tradition, but in most communities attendance has fallen; some towns are debating whether to replace the meetings altogether. But in Concord, where meetings sometimes stretch for 20 hours over six nights, attendance has jumped sharply in recent years. Joseph Zimmerman, author of "The New England Town Meeting," says: "Concord is really the first town to come up with a program to make the town meeting more comfortable." Concord offers baby-sitting for parents and free rides for seniors. It broadcasts the auditorium debate into the cafeteria, where residents knit, do puzzles or eat pizza. Town moderator Ned Perry schedules the most controversial debates for set times, so people can show up just to vote for the hot issue. Perry admits the meetings are a big time commitment, but "with the inefficiency comes the knowledge you have the ability to shape your community." In the town where the American Revolution began, that idea will never go out of style.