Southborough Town Meeting wraps up in one evening

by susan on April 9, 2013

Post image for Southborough Town Meeting wraps up in one evening

Above: Plenty of open seats at Town Meeting last night

I don’t know how common it is for Town Meeting to conclude its business in one evening – I suspect not very – but that’s exactly what happened last night.

With only 27 articles on the warrant, and nothing hugely controversial, Town Moderator David Coombs called this year’s session “one of the most unusual Town Meetings I’ve seen.”

The lack of controversy was evident in the turnout. There were more empty seats than filled ones at the Trottier auditorium last night. I haven’t seen the official numbers yet, but my guess is the attendance was less than 200. The quorum is 100.

Town Meeting made it through 18 articles by the time 11:00 pm hit – that’s the time Town Meeting is required to end according to town bylaw – but Coombs asked for support from the floor to keep going. He got it, and Town Meeting was able to wrap up the remaining articles and adjourn by about 11:20 pm.

A majority of articles passed with little or no discussion, including the school budgets which are perennial debate favorites. The most extensive discussion of the evening centered on the proposal to expand the Board of Selectmen from three to five members, and on the library budget. I’ll have more on both of those issue in upcoming posts (although you can get a preview of the decisions here).

Had we needed a second night, Town Meeting would have continued this evening starting at 7:30 pm. That means, if you had a babysitter lined up for day two of Town Meeting, you’re free to cancel – or better yet, keep the sitter and have yourself a nice date night.

1 John Rooney April 9, 2013 at 11:36 AM

Sadly, the institution of town meeting appears to be teetering on the brink of demise. It is failing us as a Town.

The turnout last evening can only be described as pathetic. Citizen apathy is a common charge against town meeting government and cannot be denied if attendance is a barometer of such apathy. The gravitational pull of the town meeting has been diminishing over the decades, and for sundry reasons an exceptionally large percentage of the registered voters in our town voluntarily abdicate power that is rightfully theirs. In essence, most of the voters hand their decision-making authority to the small, self-selected group who attend the meeting. This small group represents the interests of all citizens, although no one has elected them to do so, and they are accountable to no one.

This is exactly the problem that caused our Founding Fathers to reject this form of government and opt instead for a representative form of government.

2 Neil Rossen April 9, 2013 at 2:14 PM

John, I truly admire your efforts. I did not attend because I do not believe I can make a difference. No doubt others feel that way. I was hoping for a prop 2.5 override, as I believe all voters should vote on material financial items. It’s just too easy for the schools to stack the meeting. In any case, it seems to me that the School Committee together with the unions is where the financial power lies. Not in the BOS or TM. It is a bygone format.

3 Frank Crowell April 9, 2013 at 2:30 PM

My not so scientific observations are the high water mark for recent TM attendance was two years ago when the teacher’s contract was not quite “finalized” and we were told the increase was a very modest 2%. Of course since it was not “fully approved” by the School Committee details just could not be discussed. A day later the school committee gave its final blessing after TM had already voted on the budget. All according to plan I am certain.

Such shenanigans by the Superintendent and school committee might be part of the reason why people do not show up. If nothing else, that TM of two years ago certainly was a low water mark for decorum and honesty.

I do not blame any of this on you Mr Rooney – just calling them as I see them. Thanks again for your service, leadership and wisdom.

4 southsider April 9, 2013 at 4:33 PM

I completely disagree with the claim that our Founding Fathers rejected Town Meeting as a form of government. TM has a centuries long tradition that originated with the Founding Fathers. I’d further say that it has served our town quite well for a very long time. When there have been significant issues in Southborough, TM has drawn large and representative crowds and I, for one, am confident that it would do so in the future. Once the PAYT proposal was pulled from the agenda, there was nothing controvesial left to discuss in last night’s warrant. As long as you can actually provide candidates to fill all those Selectmen seats, most of us don’t really care how many Selectmen there are.

5 Frank Crowell April 9, 2013 at 11:38 AM

TM has some tough competition out there when the NCAA final is being played the same night. More to the point: Watching a great sporting event or a former selectman pontificate about the good old days – which would you rather be doing.

6 Rob April 9, 2013 at 3:28 PM

The turnout at TM was embarrassing, and people should be ashamed. Really….. the NCAA???? Actions speak louder than words. Without Mr. Rooney, Mr. Butler, and Mr. Purple our town will be in very rough shape, and I hope all of them continue the great work for our town. Thank you for your service!

7 Barb Black April 9, 2013 at 6:47 PM

I would like to add Mr. Hamilton to that list for thanks. Also to add that if Mr. Rooney’s cautionary financial presentation was not enough to provoke citizen alarm, I don’t know what will.

8 I'm just sayin'.... April 10, 2013 at 11:01 AM

Weeknights are extremely difficult for most people these days…especially if one works out-of-town, particularly Boston. Our forefathers were mostly farmers who milked the cows at 4pm, ate their dinner and moseyed on over to the meeting hall to take care of town business. I daresay that the warrants of old had many less articles to discuss and vote on…and since they had to be up early to milk those cows again, I would not doubt that agenda items moved right along. It was a time of everyone knowing their neighbors and discussions of articles most likely took place outside of town meeting, so that when they showed up at town meeting, they already knew the particulars of the articles and were ready to vote…I know, a lot of presumptions there, but having lived in small towns all my life, I have heard the stories :-)

We came from a town that held town meeting on a Saturday morning, finished all our business by early afternoon and had an incredible turnout…sports notwithstanding. (As I recall the timing of the meeting was after basketball season and before soccer season…late March/early April, I believe.) Over the years others have brought up the idea of holding town meeting on a Saturday morning but there has never been serious discussion about changing it. Perhaps it is time…

We religiously went to town meeting in our former town of residence…I will say that it does tend to pit neighbor against neighbor and depending on the agenda item, things can get quite nasty. We have attended town meeting here as well and have found the same situation. It has left a bad taste in our mouths…why would anyone willingly stand up and be ridiculed for their ideas or opinions…not only that night, but after the fact as well. Perhaps this is also why attendance is getting lower and lower. The only people who attend are the ones who want to make sure their articles get passed. Maybe it is not a good reason not to attend, but it is, I believe, the reality. Perhaps town meeting should not have any voting, but rather put everything on a ballot. Still have town meeting to hear the items presented by those involved, but then not have public voting. I daresay the voting outcomes would be a more honest representation of the townspeople’s opinions. I’m just sayin’…

9 SB Resident April 10, 2013 at 11:46 AM

I would love these items to be on a ballot. I think people want to vote, but town meeting just costs more in time than the difference you can make. It is my understanding that our options on how we can govern our town are severely limited by the state and putting the articles on a ballot is not allowed.

Also, I’m just as happy with the self selected representation than I would be with an elected representation. It’s basically one and the same anyway.

10 Al Hamilton April 11, 2013 at 9:30 AM

SB

We actually have a fair amount of controls over our own affairs. We could choose to substantially curtail govt services by voting a lower budget or increase services by voting a higher budget.

It is true that the state mandates a lot of things. We are mandated, for example, to spend minimum amount on our schools but the difference between the minimum and what we actually spend is very substantial and makes a real difference in the quality of the education we offer.

We don’t have to have a library, cemetery, transfer station, rec dept, senior center and perhaps a fire dept. We have chosen to have these things but it was our choice, not the States.

11 Al Hamilton April 11, 2013 at 8:53 AM

We had a Sat Town Meeting on the warrant a few years ago. It failed by a large margin. Of course only people who came out on a Monday night got to vote so presumably they are reasonably happy with the status quo.

I agree that a Sat Town Meeting would encourage participation.

I suspect that meetings in the 1700’s were just as contentious as ours. TM has been arguing for the last 285 years about the same thing. “What services do we really want and how will we pay for them.” Let’s hope we can continue the debate for another 285.

12 susan April 11, 2013 at 9:03 AM

Al, just curious. What would it take to get a question like this on the ballot? Is that something a citizen can initiate? (Not suggesting I’m going to do it, so don’t hold your breath, just asking.)

13 Al Hamilton April 11, 2013 at 9:43 AM

Susan

I am not sure if there is an easy way to do this. Others know more about this than I do. Town Meeting is the Town’s legislature and that is the place where this would normally be decided. Some matters (like special the special legislation to expand the BOS from 3 to 5, or borrowing) require approval by Town Meeting AND the voters but I am not aware of an easy way to circumvent Town Meeting.

I can think of 2 ways to do this but both are long shots:

One way I can think of is for a group of citizens to appeal to the State Legislature to permit this either on a one off basis or some other basis. This would be a lot of work and a long shot at best.

The second way would be via a charter commission. If the requisite number of signatures is collected the Town must appoint and fund a charter commission. The day of Town Meeting could be fixed in the charter. This is also a lot of work and a long shot.

There is a fairly straight forward way to move town meeting to Sat. Get 10 signatures on a petition and the article on the petition MUST be put before the Annual Town Meeting. Find about 75 people who agree with you. Go to Town Meeting and Vote. On Monday there were about 160 people in the hall so 75 like minded people could make a real difference.

14 Pat Q. April 11, 2013 at 2:43 PM

Well said, “I’m Just Sayin'”

15 Jeremy April 12, 2013 at 12:48 AM

As a newbie to town meeting, I do will freely admit I do not understand all the rules. Is there a manual or rule book (Robert’s ?) that is the “bible” for town meeting?

I would like to read up on the moderator’s authority to move the discussion along. There was one very awkward moment at town meeting where one speaker rambled on and on. When she repeatedly lost her train of thought, I was surprised the moderator did not intervene to move the discussion along and to also save her some embarrassment.

16 Tim Martel April 12, 2013 at 8:23 AM

Take a look at the beginning of the warrant for good information.

Specific to the Town Moderator, you can look at this book: “Town Meeting Time, A Handbook of Parliamentary Law, written by Richard Johnson, Benjamin Trustman and Charles Wadsworth in 1962, (now in its third edition, published in 2000 by the Massachusetts Moderator’s Association), as a guide to the regulation of Town Meeting proceedings.

From the Massachusetts General Laws:

Chapter 39: Section 15. Moderators; Powers and Duties.
The moderator shall preside and regulate the proceedings, decide all questions of order, and make public declaration of all votes, and may administer in open meeting the oath of office to any town officer chosen thereat. If a vote so declared is immediately questioned by seven or more voters, he shall verify it by polling the voters or by dividing the meeting unless the town has by a previous order or by by-law provided another method. If a two thirds, four fifths or nine tenths vote of a town meeting is required by statute, the count shall be taken, and the vote shall be recorded in the records by the clerk; provided, however, that a town may decide by by-law or vote not to take a count and record the vote if a two-thirds vote of a town meeting is required by statute; and provided, further, that if the vote is unanimous, a count need not be taken, and the clerk shall record the vote as unanimous.

A town may pass by-laws, subject to this section, for the regulation of the proceedings at town meetings. Such by-laws shall be approved and published in the manner prescribed by section thirty-two of chapter forty.

17 John Butler April 12, 2013 at 8:47 PM

Regarding holding the Annual Town Meeting on Saturday, there is another way. The simplest by far is to have the Selectmen move it each year to some Saturday following the day stipulated in the bylaw. Because of State Law, the bylaw, in effect, specifies only the first day on which it can be held, not the day on which it must be held. Moving it to a later date by vote of the BOS is always permissible under State Law (Part 1, Title VII, Chapter 39, Section 9) so long as its business is concluded by the end of June.

I think the Selectmen should try moving it to the following Saturday next year, just to see what affect on attendance it seems to have. Why not try? In fact, I would say they should run a three year experiment and see if average attendance improves compared to the prior three years. Why bother with a bylaw change without a test, and why not test?

18 Tim Martel April 13, 2013 at 10:02 AM

Not that I’m against the idea of moving Towm Meeting to Saturday, but I think that experiment will at best give you correlation without any causation.

Consider Mr. Rooney’s financial presentation that has our taxes increasing by 1.6, 5.21, and 5.54 percent over the next three years (and not to mention the projected overrides for 2016 and 2018), and I feel comfortable predicting plenty of attendance.

Just like “contested elections”, controvesy is the driver that fills the Town Meeting chamber.

19 Jessica Devine April 16, 2013 at 9:55 PM

I would really like to see TM on a Saturday, and I think other working parents would feel the same way.

Parents I know did not got to TM for a few reasons: 1) cost/availability of a babysitter 2) difficulty of getting there because work/sports/activities 3) belief that their attendance wouldn’t make a difference.

A Saturday TM would take care of reasons 1 and 2. A big plus is that it would make booking a high school kid to babysit much easier (most can’t babysit late into the night on a school night). @I’m Just Sayin’ suggested some ideal timing that would not conflict with most sport schedules, and many people don’t work on Saturdays so most current work conflicts wouldn’t exist.

The biggest problem is reason 3. Honestly, I think Southborough needs a little grass-roots marketing campaign to get more people to TM. I joked about it with my husband at TM this year, but I’m actually serious. Many parents I know had no idea that taxes and other important matters are decided at TM when I told them. No. Idea. People don’t understand our form of government. And though there is a small group of dedicated people in our town who keep it running, it’s time to face facts: Things cannot and will not keep running as they did in the good old days. TM is failing and Southborough needs to try some new things – and maybe even change its ways.

I suggest our leaders find a way to move TM to a Saturday at 1pm in late March next year. Gather some professional marketers from town to help, and put your hearts and minds into a clever, informative marketing campaign to educate the public. See what happens. And if these efforts fail? Time to consider how we can implement another form of government so that everyone is truly represented in a way that makes sense for the times we live in – not the times many wish we lived in.

20 Al Hamilton April 17, 2013 at 8:06 AM

I support trying a Saturday TM for many of the reasons you suggest. It is not a panacea. There will still be sports conflicts. There are groups that use Sat as their day of worship and in some cases are not permitted to attend out of religious conviction. There will be people that have more important things to do on Sat just like they do on Mon. (By the way 9:30 would be a better start if you want to be reasonably sure of getting done by dinner time)

The plain fact is that Town Meeting is inconvenient. If you regularly attend Town Meetings it will take between 6 and 20 hours per year of your time. Some people view attendance as a civic duty, some think it is more entertaining than Red Sox- Yankees, some like the tradition, some like the debates. Some are just not motivated to attend.

As for changing the format, the most available option is elected town meeting which is more commonly found in large towns. This would probably put the same regulars in their seats but would limit the openness that we currently enjoy. Other options would probably require the approval of Town Meeting and are unlikely to prevail.

21 Concerned_citizen April 12, 2013 at 10:20 AM

Dear Bd of Selectmen,

Regarding the low turn out and conclusion that it portends the demise of town meeting form of government, I would ask “What vision for the future of Southborough do each of you have that would arouse interest, strimulate discussion and lead to improvement in the community?”. And when i say ‘vision’, you should ‘read … an overall goal, clear objectives, a sensible strategy to achieve the goals, a list of real activities and tasks that will implement the strategy and a timeline to structure progress. It seems to me that Selectman bemoan the inevitable decision to ‘fill in the blank’ [raise taxes] … [expand the board] … [cut back on services] … [eliminate the Transfer Station Swap Shop]. I would rather hear about specific plans to improve the community. What are the best options that other communities across the country have used to meet similar challenges? Do we know? …. other than bemoaning the demise of TM

22 southsider April 12, 2013 at 10:45 AM

One point not emphasized in this discussion is that virtually every single item on the warrant was “supported” by both the Selectman and Advisory. The Articles without unanimous support ( # of Selectman and Library and Planning Board funding ) did create significant discussion as one would hope. Kudos to the Moderator for moving us along on all those Articles supported by Selectmen and Advisory.

23 saywhat April 18, 2013 at 5:10 PM

As others have already noted, a weekday night for those of us who work out of town (how many jobs *are* there in Southborough anyway?) is out of the question. Last year people suggested some sort of online system. What about voting on the warrant items online? This would allow all Southborough residents the opportunity to express their views. What is wrong with anonymity? We vote in private.

It really bothers me to see the school budget get rubber stamped each year – with raises included. Too bad the rest of us: 1.) don’t work in union environments and 2.) do not receive yearly raises. Who the heck is protected by a union and/or tenure in
this day & age? A *very* small percentage of the working population. Why are those
of us not receiving union salaries paying taxes to support union salaries? How do
*you* spell ridiculous?

Previous post:

Next post: