Zofingen’s city council meeting was similar to the ones in every city and town I’ve covered during my life as a reporter for various Oregon newspapers. The details are different, though.
For example, the meeting of the Town Council. Here I must tell you that government councils are called “Rats.” Really. The building where the Council meets is called the Rathaus.
There are 40 people elected to the StadtRat, and 10 of those are a special sub-council. This is a parallel structure to the cantons and the Swiss Nationalrat.
The meeting was an Oeffentliche Hand (public meeting in the evening in a large venue, in this case the community center, or Stadtsaal) meeting. The public was up in the balcony. Members of the Rat and some bureaucrats were on the main floor.
Before the meeting started, every one in the main room went around the room shaking hands and airkissing each other. Most members of the public didn’t know each other, so there was none of that. Those who did know each other just shook hands.
The meeting was called to order with a bell. No gavel. No uniformed law enforcement. No flag salute. No flags at all, in fact. The meeting just started.
Then came a vote. I didn’t know what was happening at first, since I was busy analysing when the speakers used dialect (when speaking number or from notes or extemporaneously) or High German (when reading any prepared text).
My guess is that dialect is purely a spoken language, so people don’t read or write in it. Some academics try to write in it, but I think that is kind of like revealing “The Code.”
The vote was taken by having those in favor stand up, then those opposed doing the same. You should have heard the racket of chairs scraping back on the wooden floor during votes.
Two people on the top row of the SubCouncil stood up and motioned with their arms bent at elbow to “stand” and “sit.” It looked like directing a choir.
There was a split vote, 25-9, on the question of whether to proceed with an effort to merge with another nearby, but much smaller, town. One of the arguments against was that it wasn’t even in the same valley as Zofingen!
When speakers went to the lecterns to make their arguments, most began by greeting “Honored Council Members, fellow representatives, and Dear Guests” (us, up in the gallery, which was almost full – about 50 people, all very quiet).
Following the meeting, there were little snacks and perhaps some wine waiting for the exhausted Council members, and I guess any members of the public who felt like going in – not many that I could see.
And there you have it – local Swiss government from the inside. Calm, orderly, polite, even in the face of some pretty strong disagreements.