There has been much talk on the blog about the vocal contingent that showed up at Town Meeting last week to support the school budgets. One commenter likened the “in your face” attitude of some Town Meeting voters to bullying.
That made me wonder, do we as Town Meeting members always vote our conscience, or do we sometimes bend to the pressure and vote the way we think our friends and neighbors think we should vote?
Town Meeting rules allow for a secret ballot if someone makes a motion and enough of the voters support it. Some this year predicted a secret ballot might be sought for the Southborough Eight reimbursement vote. That didn’t come to pass, but Town Clerk Paul Berry said if a secret ballot had happened, it would have taken at least two hours to administer. No one in their right mind wants that.
But what if there was an easier way? The town of Wayland tried out electronic voting at their Town Meeting earlier this month. Instead of raising their hands, each voter submitted their vote using a handheld electronic keypad. By all reports it was easy, quick, and anonymous.
What do you think? If your neighbors weren’t watching, would you have voted differently on town budgets? On the school budget? On the Community Preservation Act projects?
Answer the poll below, and then share your thoughts in the comments. (Note: If you’re reading this via the My Southborough daily email, you’ll need to visit the blog to vote or see the results.)
I always vote the way I want because, quite frankly, I don’t care what others think about my support, or lack of it. I do feel that if there were secret ballots there would be a change in the way some vote. It’s private, secretive, and you can express your true feelings without being singled out.
How about if we put them on the ballot at the ballot box. Then it cures the lack of representation. Instead of 100 or 200 people voting you would get maybe 3000 or 4000 voting.
I would not change the way I vote. I think voters have less of a problem voting at Town Meeting than speaking. It is difficult to get up to the microphone to speak on an issue when there is yelling and bullying. There should also be no personal attacks on the individuals that speak, be they voters or Selectmen or Advisory Members, etc. This is the greater problem with Town Meeting.
That is where the moderator should step in. I was not at this year;s town meeting due to some personal issues that needed immediate attention unfortunately but I have heard repeated comments about the “bullying” that went on. It is ridiculous. Coombs needs to either step up or step off.
For those who did not attend town meeting, perhaps it would be helpful to watch the rerun of it on the local cable access channel rather than form opinions on the basis of “what I heard…”
The moderator was suffering from double ear infections and had great difficulty hearing. I think he deserves our thanks for doing his best under difficult circumstances.
I am not afraid to speak my mind (big surprise) but from time to time I have heard people say that they are not comfortable voting in front of their neighbors. I think there is evidence that people may vote differently in the privacy of a polling place vs the very public forum that is Town Meeting. For example look at the last override attempt which passed TM but failed at the ballot.
That being said, Town Meeting is not an election. It is the Towns Legislature, co equal with the executive boards. Legislative is supposed to involve debate and votes that happen in public for all to see whether it is Congress, the State House or Town Meeting.
The majority who show up at Town Meeting are not interested in debate. They want their agenda fulfilled. So for me Town Meeting is a questionable democracy, and of little value, when so many no-shows lead busy lives trying to make ends meet (and incidentally to pay increased taxes for other peoples agendas). I think that ALL residents should be allowed to vote by secret ballot (like an election) on ANY tax increases. Then lets see what the REAL majority want. The outcome to such a vote would satify me completely even if I end up in the minority.
Mr. Rossen: I’ll assume that your comment that our town meeting is an inadequate form of democracy is intended to provide a bit of humor to an otherwise serious topic with hundreds of years of history that many have made the ultimate sacrifice to guarantee, and will respond in kind.
You’re right Neil.
If only the majority at town meeting was more like the minority. The minority comes with open minds; is willing to debate until the early hours of the morning; and has no agenda.
If only we could find a way to make town meeting more inconvenient for parents with school age children so that town meeting better reflects the community as a whole.
Perhaps we could schedule town meeting for a school night when it’s almost impossible to find a babysitter; there’s homework to be done; tubbies and books to be read; elderly parents struggling with various medical challenges to check in on, and emails and loose ends at work that need to be dealt with so that those parents can pay their taxes to support their selfish agenda of educating their children.
Maybe that would result in only half of the parents being able to attend and the minority would be at an advantage.
Alternatively, perhaps all town meeting members that are parents can be identified with big pink hats and only be allowed half a vote on any issue that impacts children.
But seriously Mr. Rossen, what can we do to create better choices at town meeting next year?
Mr.Rossen: With respect, Town meeting in the Southborough form (i.e. non-representative, one person, one vote, 51% majority)is the purest form of democracy. While I agree that more engagement from the public would be better, reduced participation does not diminish the quality of the result. If we subscribe to the concept and practice of democratic voting, then by its nature such a vote can never be wrong. We may consider it incorrect based upon facts, or inconsistent with public policy, or we may disagree with it for personal reasons, however I don’t consider it wrong.
All of public policy making at any level is about agenda advancement. I agree with you that agenda advancement is better addressed and managed through debate based upon an engaged and informed electorate. I don’t see that occurring at many levels, however when it does, its wonderful.
I am actually beside myself when I read the subject matter of this discussion. Although the correct word for what is potentionally happening hear escapes me, bullying is definetly not it and is a understatement of the severity of this issue. If any one feels that they are being forced to vote in a way that they do not want, then they should inform the police immediatly. In the town meeting the town moderator can also be informed. If this in fact did happen in the last TM I would ask that those people come forward now. There are laws to protect people from being forced to vote a direction against there will. This is a very serious matter and should not be taken lightly by any voter. I once had a neighbor ask me to sit down during a town meeting vote. I didn’t sit down and I beleive that neighbor realized what they had asked of me very shortly after and they never brought the subject up again. Please vote the way you want to vote and again, if some one is forcing you to vote a way you do not want to, immidiatly go to the police. They are normally at the TM and at the schools during voting. This is one of the reasons they are there.
my comment regarding the yelling and bullying had to do with those who may want to SPEAK at TM, not towards those who are voting. And yes, there were examples of this, but I personally did not see anyone whose VOTE was attacked. It seems that after the debate, everyone quiets down and accepts the vote, even when it requires standing up for a recount. That is the best part of our Town’s democratic process.
The Town Meeting MAY HAVE BEEN the purest form of democracy when the population was more homogenous and were not beset by the imperatives of modern life. Again, on TAX matters there should be a town wide ballot as for elections (why don’t we do those in a TM??). Why would anyone protest that if Town Meeting decides on ANY tax iincrease it not be put to ALL the voters including those who were not there but will be forced to pay. Is TM a purer form of democracy than a ballot vote that is the same as elections?
No, I am not trying to inject humor into the debate. Will those who voted for the tax increase be prepared to put it to ALL voters? I can only hope that next year we are forced to a prop 2.5 so it does have to go before them. I can predict the outcome.
I do believe that it is well within the rules of Southborough Town Meeting that any registered voter at the meeting could move that any vote be taken by ballot. So long as the motion was in order and seconded, the vote would be conducted by ballot. (Similarly, anyone in the meeting can move that voting happen in a variety of other ways). I am not absolutely certain on this as the rules of Southborough Town Meeting, like most town meetings in Massachusetts, are in an obscure book named Town Meeting Time. They are not precisely Robert’s Rules of Order.
Because of the self-governing nature and the fact that the moderator stands for election every year, the Southborough form of town meeting is the purest form of democracy. If the folks on the other side of an issue that is important to you are (a) better organized or (b) more informed about the rules, it might not feel very pure but the same tools are available to all parties unlike many other forms of democracy.
Are you sure that a motion can be made to have a town wide ballot? But then the proponents of a tax increase can simply defeat the motion so no really democratic vote. No, town-wide democracy is RESTRICTED to those who show up. Those who can’t – well that’s just too bad.
What have you against a tax increase put forward at Town Meeting being voted on in the same way as a vote for elected officials or for that matter a prop 2.5 increase? I am not talking about ballots AT the TM.
Please be specuific in your objection to my proposal in the second paragraph of THIS posting. Forget about extraneous issues. That is all I am interested in..
Neil – the argument that town meeting is more democratic than a ballot at the polls stems from the belief (one that I share) that better decisions come from dialogue. There is dialogue at town meeting. There is no dialogue at the polls. The citizens of the Commonwealth long ago decided that local authorities (meaning town meeting in the case of towns governed by that body) can tax to a certain limit without going to the polls. Your argument seems to be that more people have access to the polls than to town meeting floor so handling an item at the polls is more democratic. I think there are facts on both sides of that issue and it would be a very difficult question to settle in the abstract. In the very concrete instance here, if an issue was important enough to draw people to the polls, it is not clear to me why it would not be important enough to draw people to town meeting. There are many legitimate procedural moves available to a town meeting participant to change the hours of the meeting, the meeting place, extend discussion, revisit items, etc., none of which are available once a question moves to the polling booth where the boundaries of the “discussion” are much more rigid. Given an alternative between a free-wheeling exchange of ideas where all participants have equal rights (money can’t buy you air time at town meeting like it can in attempting to influence a vote at the polls) and the rigid constraints of a ballot measures, I’ll take town meeting any time. Now living in California with our own unique collection of huge governance problems, I truly miss town meeting.
Very well stated. Thank you.
Perhaps now is a good time to evaluate how we can encourage a more representative body of town voters to attend town meeting. What would it take to get the meeting moved to an all day Saturday event?
Regarding the comments that only people with agendas attend town meeting, we all have agendas, whether it be pro-school, anti-DPW, or just our own thoughts and ideas. That’s human nature.
I appreciate the concerns you have raised over the years at town meeting, and I respect you for raising them, even if I do not always agree with you.
However, it just is not realistic to expect the town to have an in-depth discussion of substantial issues at town meeting. If the selectmen, advisory and school committee members each spend hundreds of hours preparing for town meeting, its just not possible to distill these issues to down to sound bites.
Town meeting is a bit like watching tthe evening news. If anyone wants more than an overview of an issue, its encoumbent on them to take the time to attend the pre-town meetings, read the postings on the advisory website, and just get involved in the issue.
If someone is not willing to invest a few hours in researching an issue, then I guess that shows their true level of interest.
Finally, if you are not pleased with the outcome of town meeting, please consider volunteering your time and talents to help the town via one of the many openings on the town committees. Its easier to change things from the inside than the outside.
I do not think that word means what you think it means. Voters choose not to show up. That’s a real problem, but it’s not a restriction.
If more democratic participation were your true goal, rather than simply gaining another way to say no to taxes enacted by the town’s legislative body, you would propose a way on the same ballot for townspeople who wanted more spending to propose additional tax hikes. I wonder how that would work out.
It is not uncommon for the electorate to vote on town or school budgets in other states. I grew up in upstate NY and there school districts were completely separate from towns (the boundaries did not even overlap in some cases). I know that school budgets were voted on at an election at the time. I recall this because they got defeated from time to time.
There is nothing particularly wrong with Neils suggestion. One of the most important considerations is that Taxation is compelled, people are not given much of a choice. This power over other peoples pocket books should be used judiciously and with great care. A ballot is a means of assuring a broad measure of assent.
That being said, it is about as likely as my buying a new Crown Vic for the police dept.
“Jimmy” suggested changing the town from the inside by joining a committee. Well, it did not help that the BOS were against size the tax increase for the school. Can you be more “inside” than that? No, the only way I can see change is as I’ve previously posted or a prop 2.5 override that is roundly defeated. .
You could have a positive impact, and possibly keep taxes lower by applying for one of the openings on the capital budget committee. That committee evaluates the need for new capital equipment and that involves several hundred thousands of your tax dollars.
You can make a difference.
Kelly, I would be delighted if the ballot (to be voted in the same way as a Prop 2.5 override) had provision for additional taxes over and above those proposed by TM. I feel confident of the outcome. Do you?
Jimmy, your suiggestion about the capital committee is interesting. I fear that I would end up being villified as I am against any spending that increases already excessive taxes. That would be unfair to other departments as of course the real money is in the schools. The annual impact of the capital budget is relatively insignificant compared to that..
I would love to be on the school committee, but suggest that trying for that post would be a quixotic effort as the resistance mounted against an averred budget cutter would be substantial.
Neil – very confused by your comment on running for school committee. You don’t think your candidacy would do well at the polls? Or am I misreading you. It seems like you believe your positions would win at the polls, right? I would encourage you to run. You will, I guarantee, see some other facets of this issue.
Yep, I think you are right Neil, but you would have my vote.
I would vote for you and I am sure others would as well! I think you would be bring balance, and a little excitement to the school committee meetings :)
Do not sell yourself short. As for the capital budget committee, yes, the schools are where the majority of our taxes go, but if you can bring sanity to the aspects of town government, you will save taxes there too!
I’d expect to win some and lose some, both pro and con. Democracy is like that. Sometimes bad tax increases pass, sometimes good ones fail.
I do have some experience organizing get-out-the-vote efforts, again sometimes successfully, sometimes not. There might well have been a desire among the voters to spend another $500,000 on the schools for FY12. I personally don’t think that would have been prudent, but there are other people who know how to do GOTV too.
You’d get my vote too ;-) I’ve heard you speak at Town Meeting many times, and while we may not always agree, when it comes to spending, we do.
The comments by Jimmy about the limitations of Town Meeting’s brief encounter with the issues, sound logical, saying, in effect, that we should not expect much. However, my experience, which I don’t think is unusual at all, after more than a dozen years on Advisory Committee in two widely separated terms, is often the opposite. I find that, even though I don’t always agree with the vote, I am surprised at how often Town Meeting adds value to topics that we, in some cases, have already spent many hours reviewing. I think, with Paul, that the deliberation, although brief, is very valuable, and I think, for reasons I cannot fully explain, that the institution is remarkably useful in many ways, contributing both wisdom and social responsiveness.
Advisory Committee has two jobs. One, formal, is to recommend how to vote on each issue, and the other, de facto, is to be a knowledgeable resource for Town Meeting, answering fiscal and other questions that arise from the floor. Of those two roles I think the second, assisting with information but relying on the wisdom of the floor for the decision, is often the more useful of the two.
All systems of combining individual preferences into social choices are provably imperfect (Google: “Kenneth Arrow” to wade into this topic). So, there is no perfect democracy, but I think Town Meeting is a fine democratic institution that has been sustained here for its hundreds of years because it has earned it. I think we are fortunate to have inherited it.
Paul, a “quixotic effort” is one bound to fail – “tilting at windmills” isthe realted idiom. As I stated, the resistance would be substantial and organized.
Neil – thanks; I am current on my Cervantes.
I think the TM is a great way of addressing issues that need being voted on in our town. I think we see what happens all over our great country what happens when governments an dunions get too large. That could happen in Southbor so we all should be careful what we wish for. Maybe we could move a portion of issues to the ballot? But as we continue to look a the school budgets, and I would support Mr. Rosen as well for SC, please take a look at just what unions are saying these days. They are saying (and see link below on tape) disregard the laws, disregard the taxpayer, we are above the law. And it is reaching a tipping point becasue when the unions have more laywers on staff than any other job funtion, they can out laywer all of us. And I think even most laywers would agree with that.
Mike: I watched the link. I did not see any involvement by any of the unions which represent the employees of the town of Southborough. The town meeting is past and I have to wonder why the debate over the FY 12 budget continues. I have never been able to understand why the town performs the budget process from January to April, then allows the ensuing 8 months of the year to pass by. Where is the strategic level planing from a town wide perspective, the programming and the execution metrics to ensure we are executing the budget to residents’ expectations? My point is that it may not be fair to compare the UAW with the Southborough Teachers’ Union, or other municipal collective bargaining organizations; at least I did not see any evidence in the link. We should focus on designing a strategic plan to move our community forward over a longer period of time rather than annually.
You are right, there is no comparison. The teachers unions make the teamsters look like girl scouts.
How about my other points? You are a strategic planner, why do we let 8 months go by and then work this only 4 months? Other government agencies start working the following years budget the next day. What is needed is a well drafted strategic level plan by the elected leadership, in connection with the department heads and the public which lays out where we want Southborough to be in X years.
We attempt to plan as part of the budgeting process. Its a separate process which drives programming for the budgeting process.
No matter your view on this issue, I note that over 35% of the respondents to Susan’s poll say they would have voted differently in a non-public ballot. Obviously the poll is non-scientific, but that result is remarkable. At a minimum it suggests that many close questions would swing the other way if we voted in secret. Hmmmmm.
I wish there could be a way to mail-in votes on town warrant articles ahead of the annual town meeting.
Hundreds, if not thousands of voters can not attend the annual Southborough town meeting due to conflicts with business engagements, family responsibilities, or travel. There are absentee ballots for general elections, why not for local SBRO warrant articles?
First, mail-in proxy is more efficient than unnecessarily tying-up the attention of professionals in over 2 nights for granular, Show & Tell.
Second, mail-in voting would most certainly open the audience to a more diverse set of participants than the SBRO Town Meeting currently enjoys . . . which essentially consists of two (2) sets of people: retirees, and “seagull” interest groups (you know who they are) which fly-in, make a lot of noise, aggressively line-up behind the microphone to lobby for their lunch, crap all over the place, and then fly-out once the vote is taken on their warrant.
I love the idea of an absentee ballot. Then my husband or I (whoever isn’t home with the kids) could vote. It would also force the warrant to be complete and unalterable well in advance of TM.
I have to disagree with your evaluation of TM participants, though. There were plenty of people there – including me – who fell into neither of your categories. Many people went straight from work, you could tell, and sat there quietly and voted. I just wish more of us were there.
For all the desire shown here to create new forms of town government not chartered by the state of Massachusetts, it’s really not that hard to show up for two (2!) evenings for Annual Town Meeting in April and sometimes one more evening for a Special Town Meeting, usually in the fall. Twelve hours in the course of a year isn’t a lot to ask as the price for direct democracy. Is it?
Seriously, how much time have you spent watching TV in the past year? The national average is something like 1800 hours. Can’t you give up (or time-shift) a few episodes of your favorite reality show in favor of real reality?
A secret ballot would not change the way I vote for anything.
However, the opportunity to vote really is RESTRICTED to those who attend Town Meeting. If I am out of town on a business trip, then I cannot vote. Why is it that residents who are available to attend should have more rights than a resident who cannot? In other elections, I can vote with an absentee ballot.
Twelve hours over the course of the year may or may not be too much to ask for direct democracy, but it’s not just any twelve hours but a very specific twelve hours. It is not always a matter of choice. I resent the implied suggestion that my inability to attend Town Meeting means that I have chosen not to participate. I have watched ZERO TV in the past year. Does that make me holier than thou?
I do not think an absentee ballot would work. The most important distinction to make is that Town Meeting is our towns Legislature. It is not an election with a firmly fixed proposition to be voted on. Any article can be amended on the floor and that makes absentee voting problematic since the item being voted on by the absentee ballot is not the one being debated.
I think we need to separate the legislative function with fundamentally requires debate and discussion from the functions of an election which is to either chose a candidate or ratify or not ratify a fixed decision.
That being said I think there are things that would make Town Meeting More accessible. Here are a few:
1. Hold the meeting on a Sat. This is common practice in some communities.
2. Forbid the assignment of homework or tests due on the day following TM.
3. Start at 6:30 and end by 10:30
4. Consolidate articles to speed the meeting.
Pauline, it’s not always a matter of choice. But usually it is. In your case, I have no idea and don’t mean to impugn your commitment. Maybe you’re a Town Meeting regular I’ve never met. That’s not hard to imagine, since most voters who attend never speak.
In any case, however, the right to attend TM is not restricted. You have the same opportunity to attend as every other registered voter. It may not be convenient for you, but nothing the town does keeps you from attending.
It sounds as though you want to eliminate TM altogether. That’s by no means a view unique to you. There are ways to change the town charter. You of course are free to start working on any of them.
Kelly, very interesting. I went from a hard working tax payer trying to put food on my table to a couch potato in two sentances. I could not make the meetings because I had to work, in my mind taxation with out reprasention, in your veiw a lazy tv watcher. You are ingnorant of other peoples problems. With the amount of people comenting on this issue, it is clear that not everyone agrees with the towns voting policies. The gonvermant is not etched in stone. As Ben Franklin said, building a government in like building a boat, It needs constant work to accomidate constant changing conditions. I can’t exspress how deeply deeply dispointed it makes me as a tax payer not to be able to vote when I know there are people not working that kave all kinds of free time on there hands vote to spend the tax payers money. Seems a little backwards doesn’t it. The system may have worked fine 50 years ago, but in todays high passed world, I would say the system is broken.
Jeff, you’re looking into my mirror and seeing your face, but I didn’t put it there. I’m not making you out to be lazy. People have problems, they make choices, and some of them face more difficult choices than others. That’s true the night(s) of Town Meeting, it’s true on election day, it’s true about voter registration even.
What did you choose to do instead of attending Town Meeting? I missed last year our of sheer fatigue and laziness. After 15 or 20 years, I wanted a break. My bad.
Fair enough that you think TM is broken. It’s definitely a holdover from the past. But the farmers who started it didn’t have a lot of leisure on their hands either. No doubt some of them also thought that the demand on their time was too great.
If you think TM is obsolete, it’s up to you to do something about it. But I’d ask you to think about whether a town council and mayor, for example, would make your government more accessible to you or less.
Kelley, not sure what your first sentance means but it does sound from your comments that you can see there are times that a person cannot make it to the meating. I in fact had to work. Times are tough so the decision of going to the meating or supporting my family was a easy one. I have also lived in town for 44 years and the farmers had a much easier time getting to the TM than in the currect times. It doesn’t mean they went though. The lack of interest in the town meeting I believe is a direct reflection on the meetings timing. Moving the meeting to a Saturday may be of some help as Al has mentioned. I unfortunetly cannot be the crusader in changing our gonvernment. I have choosen my career when I was younger and do not have the time or the resourses to takle the task, I vote to elect people to do that for me, thats there career / job. There are more options of the type of gonvernment we could have if not creating our own. Thats what our forefathers did. Nothing is etched in stone. But again, I cannot be the crusader on this. Someone has to work to pay for the government, thats been my role in all this.
Time to put this baby to sleep
This “baby” is never going to sleep.
I refer all to read today’s Globe West – page W1. “Group Seeks secret vote on schools”. This is happening in Stow and will happen elsewhere. Even the MA legislature are fed up with the unions. Change is coming and the red states will be emulated. For now, taxes can be extracted from all by a minority who have the time and inclination to go to an interminable and largely irrelevant town meeting when there is really ony ONE big issue. The schools.
Neil, are you running as a write in candidate? School Board?
If so, you have my vote.
Neil, you’ve got to relax!
let me know when the red states arrive to MA. so that i can really let my true personality shine.
It troubles me when I hear people advocating for a “democracy.
This country is supposed to be a limited constitutional republic based on a concept of individual rights.
In a democracy 51% can enslave the 49%. In a republic ideally no laws could be passed which violate the rights of the individual.
I hope everyone had a chance to see the movie version of the Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged which recently showed up in some local theaters. It is an independent film, the first of a trilogy, and low budget with no name actors, but given that it was well done. I just saw it today in the Flagship Cinema down in New Bedford, exit 4 off 140. It is also in Cine in West Springfield.
Should be out on DVD better still, read the book!
The country is indeed a constitutional republic. But, that’s only at the federal level — it’s up to states and towns to decide how they want to govern themselves. Some towns choose a government that mirrors the federal government. Some towns choose a Town Meeting, which by its nature is very much a democratic type of government. It’s our right to change our government to a different form at any time, but until we do we should not lose sight of what we have chosen for ourselves. Separation of federal and local governments is a foundation of our country, and we shouldn’t blur the line between the two.