Just say no

This is my concluding article on the Town Manager search.

Participating in town government can be extremely frustrating, but the one thing that has kept me going is the belief in the democratic process. It is very tough for a Conservative like me to live in a town governed and populated by Liberals, where viewpoints and philosophies similar to mine are few and far between. Luckily, on most issues, I can live with doing what the majority wants. But the decision-making process must be a fair one, and that isn't always the case.

To exist in such a potentially frustrating environment thus requires a very good process. What this means is that the leaders who make the rules are not bending (or breaking) them to do what they want. Instead, they must take great pains to let all citizens fully express their views, and then let the people vote. If such a vote is fair, then even those who disagree with the decision can live with it. It is "majority rules" and that is the essence of democracy for most public decisions.

This is why the process at Town Meeting has been so important to me, and one reason why I've fought hard to try to make that a fair process. I have mostly failed. Town Meeting is really terrible the way it is run in Acton because the process is seriously flawed, yet those in power don't care because things are going their way. It makes me not want to participate at all. And I have tried to quit, but I feel some obligation to keep going, at least until I am able to transition my website to others. So until that happens, I remain somewhat involved, but my days are numbered.

Then an issue like Free Speech at Town Meeting comes up, and I get sucked back in. While that was largely won by preserving the Constitutional right to criticize our public officials, there are still unacceptable restrictions on that speech.

And now another issue comes up, this time a decision by the Board of Selectmen to not allow citizen participation in the selection of our new Town Manager. This time, I'm not going to get sucked in. This time I'm going to Just Say No.

The reasons for this bewildering BOS decision will be explained as best I can, but my conclusion to it all is to "let the reindeer play their reindeer games" and don't bother getting involved. So rather than spending time reading the resumes and information on the candidates, going to the interviews, attending the public meetings, and asking questions (to the Selectmen, not the candidates), I'll just ignore the whole mess and let the Selectmen handle it. If they want to put up unreasonable and indefensible restrictions on public participation, I just won't bother to participate.

Citizen participation should be a cornerstone of our local government, and it usually is, at least in form if not content. We do hear a lot of lip service and pleads for citizens to "get involved." But do our town leaders really want community input? After 20 years, albeit as an outsider, my answer is no, they do not. Not unless you are there to congratulate them, praise them, thank them, and confirm what they have already decided. Citizen participation is great unless you disagree, and then "how come you are just showing up now?" And "you have to respect the process," and "these committees have been working so hard, we need to support their recommendations."

They want 500 people to show up at Town Meeting, but they don't want those 500 people to be empowered to do anything other than vote with the leadership. A unanimous vote is preferred. Our town leaders actually believe that a unanimous vote is a sign of overwhelming acceptance of their leadership and their decisions. It is not.

They also believe that lack of involvement indicates approval. That comment was made just last night by BOS Chair Adachi. It does not.

At last night's BOS meeting, it was "The Town Manager Search Committee (made up entirely of town leaders or former town leaders) did a great job, and that is the citizen participation." Think about that carefully and you will realize it just doesn't work as a valid excuse. Involvement of former town leaders is exactly the opposite of "citizen participation." By not allowing any member of the public to attend an open meeting and ask questions, you are preventing citizen participation, plain and simple.

So the Selectmen, led by Janet Adachi and Katie Green, have decided that citizens will not be given the opportunity to ask the four finalists for Town Manager a single question during their public interviews. This is despite allowing such questions during the last search, 10 years ago. The reason, they say, is because time is too short. If we delay selecting someone quickly, candidates will drop out. I agree that time is short, but that is no excuse for not allowing real public involvement.

If the Selectmen don't want the public to be able to ask questions or to have any interactions with the candidates, then fine. They can pick the new Town Manager's name out of a hat if they want. But don't then pretend that citizens can still get involved by doing all this research and then submitting their questions to the BOS, or attending Monday's meeting and make comments without any candidates there. This isn't true citizen participation, it is a sham.

The reason their short-timeframe excuse is wrong is two-fold. First, they could just reserve 90 minutes for each interview on Saturday, allowing the public to ask questions for half an hour. What's the problem with that? I asked and got no answer. And second, the BOS decided to wait Three Weeks from when the search committee finished its work and picked the finalists to announcing their names. That is three weeks of wasted time. And now, in four days, they are going to interview and select someone who might be Acton's Town Manager for the next ten or twenty years. What a terribly rushed process and poor planning.

We elected them and they get to pick the new Town Manager. If they want to make their selection after a one-hour interview and reading background materials, that is their choice. But they shouldn't pretend that public input and involvement is needed or wanted. Board of Selectmen, your actions speak much louder than your words.

Subscribe to the Acton Forum and get our newsletters emailed to you -- FREE! Click Here!