TOWN MEETING: Don't fix it, it's not broken, just needs a tuneup.

Fri, 2007-07-20

Every year, the inevitable frustrations of Town Meeting provoke a debate about its relevance. We are told that Town Meeting is tedious, inefficient, boring, expensive, time consuming, confusing, aggravating and outdated. There must be a better way, goes the argument. The one usually offered is the predictable "Representative" arrangement, whereby the usual crop of insiders would get themselves elected to make decisions for everyone else. It should not be necessary to point out that we have that system now, both at the state and the federal level, a system born of necessity, not known for its responsiveness but rather for its tendency to breed a political class mostly interested in self-perpetuation.

Small towns such Acton can offer its citizens the opportunity to participate directly in local government. Whether or not to take advantage of this opportunity is for each individual to decide, just like participating in elections. Low attendance is not a sign that Town Meeting does not work ; rather it tends to be an indication that "all is well". Contentious issues (regionalization, leash law, Home Depot are just a few examples) bring out the crowds, in most cases to soundly defeat a poorly thought-out proposal by our elected officials. How would we do this with yet another layer of elected officials ? Have recall petitions ? Try to remember to vote them out of office next time, assuming somebody else is willing to run ? That has not worked well at the state and federal levels. The need for Town Meeting approval has a constant and beneficial influence on decisions by our elected officials. There is no better way for Acton citizens to have their priorities seriously considered.

The Acton Town Meeting is not broken but it can use an upgrade. Our current practice heavily favors the presenters and frustrates anyone trying to offer an alternative proposal, to have any sort of intelligent debate, or even to just ask questions. It starts when the motion "under the Article" is read by the Moderator -- a motion which is often difficult or impossible to follow and can be quite different from the summary in the Warrant. Last minute changes, sometimes voted by the presenting Board just minutes before start of Town meeting, make it even more confusing, as was the case last April when such last minute changes caused the Moderator to read an incorrect motion for the school budget appropriation - twice. The presentations, which get lots of time , have not been balanced and informative but one sided sales pitches. The presenters then get unlimited time to respond to comments and questions from the audience, but participation by town meeting members is limited, sometimes by deliberate parliamentary tricks such as motions to shut off debate.

Simple changes can be made to make our Town Meeting less frustrating:

* Print the actual motions under each Article in the Warrant, and do not change them other then to fix a minor error. Make the Summary relevant to the Motion.
* Let's convince all presenters to offer information and a recommendation rather than a one-side, biased opinion.
* For Articles which are likely to generate many questions and a debate, let's do the opposite of the "Consent Calendar" - tag such an Article as "likely to be debated" or a similar designation and set aside plenty of time to allow everyone to participate, encourage participation, do not allow motions to shut off debate, leave it up to the Moderator's judgment to close debate when it gets repetitious.
* Consider holding an "information only" session (no votes) just before Town Meeting, similar to the "State of the Town" meeting in December, to explain the more complicated Motions a answer people's questions - perhaps on a Saturday.
* Make it a policy (so that everyone knows what to expect) not to take up any new Articles after 10:30 PM. Simple, non-controversial Articles would have already been done under the Consent Calendar and anything not simple should not be started that late, as we experienced last April.
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These are just some possibilities, your ideas are welcome.

There are many other good reasons to keep our Town Meeting. Town Meeting can be entertaining, wildly funny, and informative in unexpected ways ; we learn things about the town which most of us did not even know we should ask. It brings out the considerable knowledge and expertise of our neighbors on a wide range of subjects. It gives us a chance to see old friends and to make new ones. By asking us to make real decisions about otherwise abstract ideas, such as zoning, Town Meeting sometimes forces us to examine our own beliefs and priorities. It gives us a chance to show our children how self-government works, how respect for the opinion of others, civility, and participation are part of the process. It is a breeding ground for the hundreds of volunteers who collectively donate thousands of hours of their time each year to the Town's boards and committees. Town Meeting is one of the few things that we do as a community. That alone is reason enough not to abandon it. See you at the next Town Meeting.

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Alex Horovitz responds:

Indeed, as Charlie points out, there are many good reasons to keep Town Meeting as our mechanism by which we as a community govern our local affairs. My contention remains that we must do something to end voter disenfranchisement. It is simply inexcusable in this day and age to not use technology to create the opportunity for participation in Town Meeting.

This is no longer a time where we are born, live, and die within a small 10 mile radius. This is no longer the age where only the male land owner is allowed to cast a vote. We live in an era where it is technologically feasible for a registered voter to participate in Town meeting without having to physically be there. Certainly we can do better as a community than to continue to disenfranchise those, who, though no fault of their own, cannot attend the meeting in person.