Published in the June 8, 2017 edition.
By MARK SARDELLA
Let me be the first to say it. Hot enough for you?
I know, it’s barely 70 degrees, but after the February weather we had earlier this week, today feels like Death Valley. It doesn’t get reliably warm around here until the summer solstice. Then it’s summer until about the Fourth of July, and it’s all downhill after that.
Like the solstice, something else happens twice a year — around the time of the Annual Town Meeting in the spring and the Regular Town Meeting in the fall. People start talking about changing from Open Town meeting to Representative Town Meeting.
What usually sparks the debate is some mean-spirited person remarks upon Town Meeting attendance.
Critics say that there are two major problems with Open Town Meeting: low attendance and high attendance.
Low attendance is the problem except when a special interest group packs Town Meeting to vote through a pet measure. Then high attendance is the problem. We usually see at least one example of each per year, and the debate over Open Town Meeting ensues anew as if we hadn’t had this exact discussion every year for the last half century.
There are endless excuses for why people don’t go to Town Meeting: they work evenings, they’re too tired after working all day, they have kids and can’t afford a babysitter, the Moderator is a meanie, etc.
Let me stipulate that those are all legitimate reasons for not attending Town Meeting. So is any other reason you can come up with. Town meeting attendance is not mandatory. If you can’t make it or don’t want to go, fine. Don’t go. Someone else will be more than happy to decide how your taxes are spent.
Typically, the problem of high attendance occurs when an interest group fills the auditorium with supporters who vote through their special project. Then, precisely 0.5 seconds after the Moderator announces the vote result, they all stand up simultaneously and head for the exits, chattering like a bunch of school kids leaving an assembly.
Clearly it takes outreach and organization to get all those people to show up in the first place. I’ve always wondered why the same organizers don’t also give them some tips on exiting with a modicum of decorum. I really do get that people have babysitters at home that need to be relieved and that people need to get up early for work.
But if I were advising a special interest group on attending Town Meeting, my advice would be, “Act like you’ve been there before,” even though most of you haven’t.
• After the article you came for is voted through, stay five extra minutes. Five minutes won’t matter to your babysitter and won’t significantly affect your beauty sleep.
• Instead of leaving en masse, head out a few at a time.
• Hold your tongues at least until you reach the lobby.
Following these few simple pointers will make it appear that you actually care about other people’s issues as well as your own. And as a bonus, the Moderator won’t have to scold you in front of Town Meeting and the cable TV cameras.
The fact that Open Town Meeting allows special interests to skew decisions is certainly an issue. But it’s a very democratic issue. If one group can do it, so can any other. And anyone who’s interested in marshaling forces to counter an interest group is also free to do so.
Reading has a Representative Town Meeting. There are 188 members elected proportionally from the town’s eight precincts. Of the total, I’m told that about 150-160 typically show up for each Town Meeting session. That seems pretty close to the average attendance at Wakefield’s Open Town Meeting. So, there doesn’t seem to be much advantage from the standpoint of attendance.
Besides, if we went to Representative Town Meeting, what makes anyone think that the people who decide to seek election won’t be mostly the same dedicated people who now show up at Open Town Meeting?
Granted, Representative Town Meeting stops one section of town from packing a meeting to get a neighborhood project, like a school, voted through. But just remember that by going to Representative Town Meeting, you’re taking that ability away from everyone, including yourself, when a worthy project arises in your own neighborhood.
Some have suggested other reforms for Open Town Meeting, like letting people vote electronically online or allowing “proxy voting.” Just what we need – another reason not to show up and participate. And I don’t even want to think about the potential for fraud.
Open Town Meeting has been called “the purest form of democracy.” Call me crazy, but that almost sounds like a good thing.
Too much democracy seems like an odd reason to abandon the most open and inclusive form of local self-government ever devised.