Debate: Acton Town Meeting -- Is It Broken?

Fri, 2007-07-20

According to William Galvin, Secretary of our Commonwealth, "The purest form of democratic governing is practiced in a Town Meeting. In use for over 300 years and still today, it has proven to be a valuable means for many Massachusetts taxpayers to voice their opinions and directly effect change in their communities. Here in this ancient American assembly, you can make your voice heard as you and your neighbors decide the course of the government closest to you."

Indeed, 300 hundred years ago when there was roughly one vote per family (the male landowner), and people did not travel outside their communities to work, and when there was no night shift, this may have been true. However, in this day and age, Town Meeting disenfranchises people who work odd shifts, people who travel on business, and people with care-giving responsibilities. Never mind the fact we would be unlikely to be able to hear all 21,000 plus neighbors at a Town Meeting.

My bottom line criticism of open Town Meeting is the lack of a suitable mechanism for people who cannot attend to cast their vote on the important issues that face us as a community.

Any person with any type of care giving responsibilities, must provide, at their expense, some sort of dependent care in order to exercise their vote. This might even be construed as a Poll Tax. Caregivers in our community are not offered a proxy vote so that the wishes of all age eligible parties could be expressed as a household.

The business traveler is unable to exercise their vote if they are unable to attend. The Amendment process eliminates the possibility of an absentee mechanism. The night-shift worker is disenfranchised for the same reason. The citizen unable to attend, for whatever reason, is disenfranchised by the open Town Meeting.

There are more than 21,000 people now living in Acton. The open Town Meeting has outlived its usefulness. Designed for a different age when the community was very much smaller, it has been a liability for some time. We, as a community, can arrive at a better solution.

Typically when population sizes increase, direct democracies give way to more republican forms of government. Indeed this has historically been the case for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and to a greater extent the rest of the United States. Interestingly, the Commonwealth does have recommendations for us to consider as we seek to eliminate disenfranchisement from our Town.

The Commonwealth has taken the time to demarcate levels of direct democratic involvement as they relate to population. It is the Commonwealth’s sense that populations less than 6,000 are best governed by open Town Meetings. For those greater than 6,000 there is the option to move to a limited (representative) Town Meeting. For population sizes greater than 12,000 there is the option to take on a City form of governance.

My sense is that we like open Town Meeting because it allows us to directly participate (if we so choose) in the discussions and debate around the issues. I would hazard a guess that we also prefer the more direct democratic nature of an open Town Meeting. I would say that, at this moment in time, the solution for Acton falls outside what the Commonwealth offers us as choices, and we should seek to innovate.

We need a system that allows the ideas and opinions of those who are interested but cannot physically be in attendance for an indeterminate number of evenings to participate. Town meeting could be run with a simultaneous webcast in addition to the cable broadcast. In this manner, the citizens who were stuck at home or traveling would be provided with a mechanism to register their cell or home phone number and then could cast votes from a distance at the appropriate time.

This is, after all, the information age and we enjoy a very technically savvy local population. The types of technology and systems that would be needed to run such a meeting are both readily available and relatively cheap. Modern computer and telecommunications systems offer vastly improved options for us as a Town and if American Idol can do it, certainly we should be able to as well!

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Charlie Kadlec responds:

Mr. Horovitz says that his "bottom line criticism of open Town Meeting is the lack of a suitable mechanism for people who cannot attend to cast their vote ….". He further says that "The citizen unable to attend, for whatever reason, is disenfranchised by the open Town Meeting". His solution is to run the meeting with a simultaneous webcast, to allow participation and voting via phone. Some of the reasons he gives for "unable to attend" are debatable, but let's accept his premise and examine his proposal.

There are obvious problems with his proposal. Citizens who are not inclined to use the Internet because they are not technically savvy, do not have Internet access, or just are not interested, as well as those away from home and without immediate Internet access (driving, flying, staying in a cheap motel or stuck with a dead laptop battery) and the same people who cannot attend because they are working nights still could not watch the proceedings and participate. They would still be disenfranchised.

Participation by phone has its own set of problems. Debate and offering Amendments may be technically possible, but just imagine the Moderator having to recognize "Mr. Smith on phone channel 23", having somehow verified that it is Mr. Smith and that Mr. Smith is a registered voter in Acton. Videophones would help, but we do not yet have the bandwidth. If Alex meant to have people use phones just to vote, we have the same problem of verifying that the caller is a registered voter. Confirming that the call is from a "registered phone number" would not tell us who is calling (cats have been known to dial 911 …). Would we require a voice vote or just "press 1 for YES, 2 for NO" ? How about teller-counted votes, legally required for certain motions ? And cell phones ? How about those in dead zones, on commercial flights or driving in states that frown on driving and phoning ? They would still be disenfranchised.

I give Mr. Horovitz credit for not suggesting that we eliminate Town Meeting, for looking for ways to make it better - but his proposal is unworkable. His use of American Idol as an example of phone voting tells me that he may not be serious, that he may just be having fun -- or that finding a good way to improve our Town Meeting is difficult.