Published in the April 20, 2016 edition

This is the second in a series leading up to the town election on Tuesday, April 26.


WAKEFIELD — Open Town Meeting has been a local tradition since Wakefield’s earliest days. Any registered voter can attend but participation tends to vary depending on the issues on the warrant. The Item asked the five candidates running for three seats on the Board of Selectmen how they felt about Open Town Meeting versus the Representative Town Meeting form that some communities have adopted.
All of the candidates, incumbent selectmen Ann Santos and Phyllis Hull as well as challengers Peter May, Anthony Longo and Dan Benjamin shared their thoughts on Town Meeting.
“I believe that we should continue the Open Town Meeting keeping the proper controls in place with the town moderator,” May said. “Henry David Thoreau sums up my view in one sentence. In a speech in 1854, Thoreau said, ‘When, in some obscure country town, the farmers come together to a special town-meeting, to express their opinion on some subject which is vexing the land, that, I think, is the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States.’”
Longo also favors keeping the Open Town Meeting form.
“I am a huge fan of Open Town Meeting, but the frustrating part is that less than 10 percent of registered voters attend Town meeting,” Longo said. “This almost forces Wakefield to seriously consider a Representative Town Meeting. That being stated, an Open Town Meeting allows all residents to participate and contribute if they so choose. It is totally transparent, as is all of town government. One suggestion would be to hold workshops prior to Town Meeting. These workshops or forums could be used to help explain some of the warrants, especially the larger, more complicated ones.”
Benjamin says that the question comes up from time to time but he wondered if there was serious interest in changing to a Representative Town Meeting.
“I believe it would have to be a change in our Town Charter and decided by a vote at Town Meeting,” Benjamin says. “Maybe if there is interest we can send out a survey through the Town Clerk or Town Administrator. The New England states are kind of unique with their open and representative Town Meetings. Some say you can overload open meetings with special interest groups to pass articles. With Representative Town Meetings you cannot do that. But at Representative Town Meetings you can speak only after elected members have spoken and you can’t vote on an issue. Reading has had Representative Town Meeting since the 1940s and it seems to work well for them. We have also had ours for years and it seems to work also.”
Current board chairman Ann Santos said that moving to a Representative Town Meeting doesn’t necessarily address the issue of low voter participation.
“If more citizens participated in Town Meeting and thus represented a better cross-section of our neighbors, Town Meeting would appear to be less controlled by a few with pointed interests,” Santos said. “However, the few familiar faces that in fact show up at every meeting – even if they have a particular agenda – are involved in the process and actively participate and I do admire that. While Representative Town Meeting sounds like a solution to reaching a larger audience, I’ve heard that the experience and outcome is not much different than open meeting.
“In speaking with some friends and colleagues from Reading,” Santos added, “their complaints about Representative Town Meeting mirror complaints about Open Town Meeting. In either case, the goal would be to reach as large and varied an audience as you could, but I’m not sure, without more research, that Representative Town Meeting achieves that goal better than Open Town Meeting. The Charter Commission comes up in 2018 and this issue could certainly be studied at that time.”
Selectman Phyllis Hull said that she has long favored Representative Town Meeting.
“As vice chairman of the Charter Commission, I was one of the committee members that voted in favor of Representative Town Meeting,” Hull said. “I am still in favor of it. As far as I am concerned Open Town Meeting has gone past its time. I think I have attended most every Town Meeting in the past 20 years. I certainly also know that there is that group of conscientious citizens like me who have also attended all these meetings. We have seen more times when only a small group attend. Times when it is important and we are voting on budgets worth millions of dollars. People only attend for their self-interest.
“Special interest groups have made Town Meeting a long and tedious process,” Hull added. “No one wants to sit and listen to the same questions and answers over and over again. It is so repetitious and it takes forever to come to the point. Once the special interest is resolved, most often you do not see these people again. It is also very difficult for seniors and young family members to come and sit there all those hours. There are several surrounding towns like Reading who have Representative Town Meeting and it works out very well. The citizens of each district are well represented.
“I know we would have to change the Charter and it would be put to a vote but maybe this is the time to do it,” Hull said. “The voters can decide.”