Do you want increased transparency in Town Government? If so, how?

by beth on April 22, 2015

A citizen’s petition to increase transparency in town government failed at Annual Town Meeting – twice. (If you skipped night two, you missed the second attempt.)

The article would have required town boards to post all communications promptly to a public website. Emails and documents would also be “indexible” to allow residents to search them.

By the comments prior to the first vote, I believed that most most voters and officials supported the concept. I assumed the reason it failed was questions voters had about how it would work.

But after the next night’s failed attempt to readdress the issue, I was less sure.

Resident Tim Litt asked Town Meeting to reconsider the article with a motion to amend. Litt’s rationale was that a passionate argument against the article was made by Town Counsel after a call to vote. Litt pointed out that the petitioner didn’t have a chance to respond.

Petitioner John Butler told the audience he wasn’t overly concerned about that. But, in response to Litt’s suggestion to amend the proposal, he advised, “Go for it.”

Litt suggested removing the language that would compel the town to comply with the new policy. Instead, the Town would spend $2,500 for a consultant to determine what the process would entail.

A 2/3 majority was required to allow reconsideration. Instead, a clear majority ruled to move on to new business.

That vote didn’t come with a survey, so I can’t speak for voters intentions. But I’m curious.

  • Was it lack of support for the concept?
  • Concerns about spending money? (Or how the money would be used?)
  • Or simple impatience to move on? (Judging by voters who left before the meeting was done, some clearly attended to vote on 911 field and/or demolition delay articles. Others who may have considered it their duty to attend the entire meeting, may also have been eager to avoid it dragging into late hours or a third night.)

Feel free to explain your personal reason in the comments.

The vote left me curious about what voters want from the town.

Of course, I can’t ask those voters directly. So, I’m asking my readers. (And I’m assuming some of you are voters!) 

It’s clear from past blog comments, some of you want more transparency. But how many of you agree with Selectman Bill Boland that public records requests and publicly posted meetings are enough transparency?

(Keep in mind that public records requests require applicant to pay for copies and can also include charges for personnel time. See the policy here.)

Or maybe it’s not communications you’re concerned about. Is there something else that you want more access to?

If you were able to make the rules, what would change? Here’s an initial list of ideas to get you started (based on past comments):

  • Easy to find explanations of what Town Boards do – their responsibilities and “job descriptions”
  • Clear methods for contacting those boards (outside of attending meetings)
  • Easier access to past agendas and searchable minutes

Also – What’s more openness worth to you?

Chances are these things have a cost attached.  (Either in consultant fees or diverted/additional personnel hours.)

Would you support the expense at Town Meeting? (Assuming you are among the small percent of voters who attend!)

1 Al Hamilton April 23, 2015 at 7:56 AM

I have been a advocate of improved transparency for over a decade. In my experience achieving this goal may in fact save money not cost money. I have served on 3 committees that have taken the position that they will make all their work papers available on a web site. I can attest that this is not a significant burden.The effort in total is far less than the effort required to comprehensively respond to public records requests.

I am afraid that I have to suggest that there is a deep philosophic divide on this issue between public officials that believe that the public is best served by making this information readily available and those that believe that such information will sow confusion and cause embarrassing questions to be asked. That was played out on floor of town meeting. Those that had walked the walk with respect to transparency supported the measure and those that have a track record of secrecy opposed.

Beyond all of this there is the matter of efficiency. Almost all our documents start out in electronic format. Centrally storing them in digital format is an almost trivial exercise. Reducing them to paper on the other hand, in the 2nd decade of the 21st century, harkens back to the stone age. The very real costs and inaccessibility of paper make it an obsolete medium.

This matter is not going to go away. The people of the town own this information, they should expect that it be stored in the most cost effective way possible and that it should be made available in the most convenient, cost effective fashion possible.

2 Desiree Aselbekian April 23, 2015 at 1:30 PM

Over the course of my campaign it has become readily apparent that transparency is extremely important to voters, tax payers, and community members who want information. The lack of transparency in our government is one reason why I am in the Board of Selectmen race. The fact is, most people entrust their elected officials and Town leaders (appointed or employed) to do the right thing on behave of the Town. However, they want to be able to easily access information when it’s convenient for them to do so. This is why implementing a new website is so critical to the issue of transparency.

Town Meeting approved funding to build a new website with the company “Virtual Town Hall,” but I think it is crucial the BOS take a leading role in its development and implementation to ensure the website is going to work for the needs of our Community. Unfortunately, the Technology Committee only has one citizen at the table, a number of vacancies, the Town Administrator and Town Treasurer (both non-voting members), so there is no quorum. Therefore, it is up to the governing body of our Town to make sure this is done right with transparency always in the forefront. Let’s make sure the user experience is easily navigable, the website readily indexed and searchable, and most importantly the website has all forms available at a push of a button. This is very easily attainable in 2015. Creating a user friendly website is the industry standard today for any professional organization, and the right tech person can make it unique to the needs of the audience it serves.

Additionally, let’s take the website implementation 3 steps further:
1) issue email addresses to all elected and appointed officials: I understand why some officials may not want their personal email available; however, it is important people have access to their representatives. Moreover, I believe all our representatives have a duty to be accountable and respond. When you sign up to be a leader in our Town you need to be available, as you become a public servant.
2) allow boards and committees to have a web page within the Town’s site: through the board or committee web pages all meeting minutes, reports, and relative documents can be incorporated on the page for public view 24/7.
3) create a sign-up for citizens to get weekly/monthly email updates: emails for the week with the board/committee meeting dates and agendas are common in other Towns. Plus, we could email people with information or special events from various Town Departments.

In terms of making public records available, our Town is lacking in the readily accessible department. No Town committee should be required to pay hundreds of dollars for public records. It’s shameful. Yet, the BOS decided to charge the Open Space Committee for staff time and printing costs associated with their request. Moreover, no citizen should be charge $20 for staff and printing costs associated with a 1 page document. Yes, that is a true story. This is not right, plain and simple. Records do originate in electronic format these days, and can be uploaded to a website and/or emailed to a citizen requiring the information within seconds. If a citizen needs it in paper format, just make them a copy!

Transparency is not a difficult concept to understand. For some people, however, it may be difficult for them to accept. I, for one, welcome it. I strongly feel the more information that is disseminated to the public, the less speculation arises. Therefore, at the end of the day, the public feels confident in the Town’s decision-making.

Thank you for including this discussion topic,
Desiree Aselbekian

3 Donna McDaniel April 23, 2015 at 7:51 PM

Response to the issue making information more accessible to people I’d feel more urgency in computerizing, etc.. such as maybe a couple of meetings on the topic and an assessment of how many citizens believe they would make use — frequent use of the topics and documents we’re talking about.. Holding a couple of open discussions to asses who/how many people would show up at such a meeting or two,
.if there wereif we compiled some basic information, especially on the costs of making copies… if thislike to s

4 southsider April 23, 2015 at 4:46 PM

I think TM has an overall aversion to motions to re-consider.

5 John Kendall April 23, 2015 at 5:27 PM

The word TRANSPARENCY has become just that; transparent. It has been so overused by everyone, particularly politicians, that hardly anyone believes it when they hear it. How about everyone go back to honesty, integrity…..do the right thing.

6 resident April 23, 2015 at 9:50 PM

I think it would be great to give Desiree the chance to make some real change for this town. She deserves the chance especially with all the issues we have encountered. New blood is good!

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