Every year after Town Meeting I take a look at the attendance numbers. It’s typically a depressing exercise, and this year is no different. While it wasn’t the worst on record, turnout this year was predictably light.
On the first night of Town Meeting, 277 residents showed up at Trottier, accounting for 4% of Southborough’s voting population. On the second night, only 144 residents, or 2.1% of voters, showed up.
With major town issues – like whether to change the very structure of our government – being decided by only a handful of residents, some in town are asking what we can do to get voters more engaged. Others suggest we should abandon our form of Town Meeting altogether for something more representative.
In a comment on this blog yesterday, Selectman John Rooney had this to say about Town Meeting attendance:
We are fooling ourselves with the belief that open Town Meeting is representative of our town. The collective “we” in attendance at Town Meeting has nothing to do with self-governing in any realistic sense…The gravitational pull of the town meeting has nearly been lost, and for a variety of legitimate reasons an exceptionally large percentage of the registered voters in our town voluntarily abdicate power that is rightfully theirs.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the discussion about what to do about Town Meeting attendance is being conducted by those who actually attended it. But I want to hear from those of you who did not attend.
With the idea that before we can solve a problem we have to know what problem we’re solving, take a moment to answer this (highly unofficial, highly unscientific) poll. If you did not attend Town Meeting – either one night or both – tell us why. (Note: If you’re reading this via the My Southborough Daily email, you’ll need to visit the blog to vote or view results.)
Thank you for doing this. It is not a completely scientific survey but it is instructive.
I think that the results can be summarized (to date) into 2 broad categories of reasons for lack of attendance.
Lack of Convenience (no one to watch kids, too late, schedule conflict, takes too long) accounts for about 61% of the reasons
Lack of Interest/Information (no interest, wasn’t aware, don’t care, not informed, ok to let others decide) accounts for about 25%.
Let me join John Rooney is donning a suit of Nomex lined armor and make a suggestion that could deal with #1
We institute Town Meeting Day. (this is done in Vt by the way). It would be a Sat. On Town Meeting Day all public facilities and activities except for those necessary for the Meeting and Public Health/Safety would be closed. The Senior Center would be closed, Athletic Fields and Facilities Would be Closed, No Rec Programs, No School Sports, No Homework, No School Activities. In short it we would remove some of the distractions that prevent participation and do at a more convenient time.
Make attendance/observation of a single Town Meeting a requirement for High School Graduation.
I do not support public provision of child care beyond providing a list of available sitters/services. Child care is the responsibility of parents not the government. Public facilities might be made available to organizations that agree to take care of children for the duration of the meeting.
I find the spread of the responses interesting, it shows “the problem” isn’t easily solved. It’s a good list of reasons and I think the spread shows that its a little bit of all those reasons combined that people don’t go. I put the problem in quotes because I can’t image what it would be like if several thousand people did show up. We’d have a whole set of other issues.
I personally find the whole forum of town meeting to be ridiculous. Arguing for hours just to postpone articles. Yeah, I get the concept, but it’s just soooo outdated, just another example of the world evolving faster than our laws.
Ultimately, the process is the equivalent of having to pay to vote, and obviously for the majority of the town, the cost of attendance isn’t worth the benefit of having their opinion count on these particular issues. You can argue that there are merits in such a system, but ultimately its innately obvious to me that there is far more bad than good when this is the case.
Democracy is outdated?
Or are you agreeing with Mr. Rooney’s idea about Representative Town Meeting?
You seem to be referring to a “better” form of government, the nature of which is not apparent.
Or perhaps you meant that technology can be applied to our current form of government to faciliate participation?
Yes, your last comment. Town meetings were started long before there were even telephones. The purpose was to get everyone together so that the issues could be discussed and debated so that people could make informed desicions. Communication being the key. The internet (the tool that transformed communication) is ubiquotous enough now, that it would be fair to use it. We could easily come up with a way to meet all the objectives of town meeting with participation on the web. This way people could get informed during their own free time. If we don’t trust internet for the actual voting, the meetings could be simply for voting, although I would prefer a ballot just like the state ballot questions. This would be real democracy, the voices of all would be heard.
It is my understanding that there are many state laws that dictate how we must run our local forms of government and that nothing like this would ever be legal.
SB resident, I agree entirely. Anything to broaden the voter base is preferable to minority government. I have been vocal on the various MySouthborough threads, and actually toyed with the idea of not attending. I’m not suggesting I have any credibilty, but I felt that if I did not attend I would have none at all. Those with a vested interest In approving the budgets certainly did attend and got what they wanted.
Why should it depend on your energy level whether to attend? In November most of us will go out to vote without having to sit hours through a meeting. Let’s just have a ballot on the issues and vote as we do for other elections. Why not?
What form of government do you recommend to replace town meeting?
I agree with you regarding “several thousand”.
The quorum requirement (100) could be raised.
Going to a representative town meeting form of government would be a mistake.
Go on line and check out Framingham’s town meetings. They last for months. It becomes a debating society that can barely function.
Residents who show and vote have a bigger and more important say in how things are then those that don’t bother.
Town politics is so inbred and predictable that the average citizen really has no voice today. It’s kind of a joke to us guys who have been here 30+ years. I always atttended when I believed it matted.,Now everything is dollar driven and common sense is outdated. Why go when you already know the outcome- maybe for the fillibusters, foot dragging and high drama?-Nah, guess I’ll stay home, watch Nova and read what’s gonna happen to us in the paper.., Yawn
I believe that we have a de facto volunteer Town Council, and whoever wants to be part of that volunteer de facto Town Council may do so. I think that’s extraordinary and great. I don’t think the system is broke. Rather, there are people such as the author who are disappointed that more don’t attend. I understand the philosophical point of that disappointment and I share some of it (even in myself as I rarely attend Town Meetings). In short, I suggest that the disappointed folks take a step back, and appreciate that we have a de facto Town Council of 250-300, that’s an excellent ratio of representation, and we don’t have to deal with elections and campaigns for Town Council persons. If we have an issue that really motivates people, the de facto Town Meeting automatically converts to a direct democracy. Respectuflly, JK
I don’t understand the comments made that the town meeting spent hours debating whether to postpone and warrant article. The artical in question was about major changes to the towns governance ( 3 to 5 selectman, changes to the form of town legislation). The jostling for the vote to postpone was in effect a no vote for the artical.
I only wish that there was more interest in the major budget warrants.
I’m not certain I agree, John. It could have been voted down outright. I think a large number of those opposed did not want it to die, and chose instead to postpone it. There is an interest in bringing a modified version back to Town Meeting.
I do agree that the debate was normal and healthy.
I’ve been attending Town Meeting for 37 years. It seems that in the past 10 or so, certain groups are able to pack the house for certain items (the Trottier School vote was a great example), then they leave, allowing a much smaller group to handle the affairs of the town. It’s disappointing to see that happen, because that’s not the true form of democracy we all talk so handily about. That and some of the long, drawn out battles are what have curbed my interest.
I believe that most people are content with how the town runs and don’t want to be bothered fine-tuning the details. But I do think TM could run a bit better and that that could improve attendance.
In my mind, there’s nothing more exasperating than listening to proponents of an article talk and talk and talk about something that will ultimately pass unanimously. Between the half dozen or so of these articles plus the often unnecessary Committee reports that can tie up the first hour of TM each year, the overall process could be moved along at a brisker pace. I wonder if the Moderator could develop a practice of tentatively polling the floor to determine its need to hear extensive discussion on an Article? Maybe something similar to the “hold/no-hold” process we use to pass the majority of the budgets with zero discussion? Quicker, more efficient TM’s might improve attendance significantly.
I like your idea about hold/no hold for the main articles. It would help us make time for the things that need to be debated or even get home a little earlier.
If we were to do this I think there are some considerations. Some items require a counted vote (eg borrowing) and they would have to be exempt but they are likely to be debated any way.
The actual main motions would have to be frozen and published some time before town meeting (1 week?) so we could know what we are really passing on. I think this is a desirable change anyway. The frozen motions would be the main motions and amendments offered against these versions if they were held.
I recommend holding the town meeting on a weekend during the daytime. I further recommend prohibiting the town meeting from lasting longer than a set period of hours. The fact that the town meeting spans two (2) weeknights is already an indication it’s gotten out of control. Debate must be limited. Sorry.
I further recommend that people be allowed to vote online for the warrant issues. It certainly is not rocket science to implement this. How many of you pay your property tax bills or purchase your transfer station stickers on line?
A web site could be set up that could validate one’s residency and allow one to vote on the warrant items without having to be physically present at the town meeting.
I really do not understand the reluctance to move forward with an on line approach. Perhaps the 5% power elite is opposed to a more democratic approach?
Representative town meeting.
For those of you recommending a representative town meeting to replace Southborough’s open town meeting form of government read today’s Metrowest news.
Framingham has a representative town meeting . The town is hovering around bankrupstsy. The article states ” everybody is organized into very polarized factions”. i.e. the representatives in each precinct . Their town meeting starts tomorrow it will drone on for the rest of the year.
Is this the form of government Southborough wants?
I’m not a fan of representative town meeting either. Framingham may not be a perfect example, since it’s a city pretending to be town, but that RTM is pretty dysfunctional, at least from the outside.
If we’re going to reconsider our system of government, maybe we should consider having a mayor and a town council.
I was convinced at Town Meeting that changes need to be made, but so far, the best idea I’ve seen is a pretty conservative change – retention of open town meeting, 5-member BoS, delegation of authority to a professional executive (call the position whatever you like), and some centralization of authority. I’d like to see this done with bylaw changes to the degree legally possible.
I agree. The changes in governance you recommend would enhance open town meeting without taking away the benefits of giving any towns person the ability to participate and vote.
That form of government would not be legal for Southborough. Mayor + Council is a form of city government, and to enact such the town must have a population > 12,000. Given our population at ~9,700 and shrinking, our only choice for the foreseeable future is Selectmen + some form of Open Town Meeting.
Therefore, the best option to improve our local government is to actually split the previous Town Manager legislation and move forward with them separately (one Act, one Bylaw).
I’d be in favor of more strict time limits, as well as restricting the number of times a single person can speak on any given issue. But overall, the debate is critical to the process working. Most people do not do their homework prior to Town Meeting, and are 100% reliant on being educated on the issues during the meeting.
Say what you will about inconvenience, at least now we know that the people that actually attend Town Meeting care enough to put in the time to be informed before they do vote. I’m not really interested in fast food democracy.
I have lived here for 8 years, and I confess have only attended 2 town meetings.
Both were painful. People spoke for too long, in too rambling a way. The meetings were slow. I felt like an outsider watching a group of insiders who had some elaborate norms that I could not understand the value of. I did not feel welcome.
Please let me vote on items online (per Say What, above).
Please keep the meetings set to an agenda that gets followed (with actually times).
Please enforce strict limits on how much people talk.
Please hold them on weekend mornings.
I agree. Won’t happen though. Town employees, teachers, and others in the public sector don’t want it as that would mean a majority vote! And then guess what happens to the budgets.
My first experiences with Town Meeting were also confusing. I was timid about doing something “out of order” and wasn’t sure of the protocols for talking at the microphones. Eventually, I learned. Frankly, it wasn’t that difficult.
I do think we should try and limit discussion on those items that seem destined to Pass almost unanimously… why waste the time.
But I do think TM provides an opportunity to be heard, to get involved and to make my vote count. The Moderator does a good job of controlling how long discussions run. I think his rule of thumb is ” the greater the controvery and/or the larger the amount of money involved, the longer I’ll let them talk”… not a bad way to do it, if you ask me.
Online TM is highly unlikely. Come to the real one; it’s not that painful and there’s always plenty of notice.
As for modifying the way the BOS run and the authority given to a Town Manager, I agree with K Roney above… a conservative approach has the best chance of succeeding and could provide immediate benefits after which we can decide if more change is necessary.
While I agree that a Saturday Town Meeting and steps to streamline the process are desirable I think we need to also deal with reality.
1. About 3 years ago the Advisory committee offered a warrant article that would have moved the ATM to Sat and moved it back a few weeks. It was overwhelmingly defeated. This lead to my realization that the only people who’s opinion count are those that show up at ATM and they appear to be happy with the way things are. If you want to change things, you will need to mobilize those that think like you and make it happen and show up at Town Meeting. The “regulars” who take the time out of their schedules to come and debate and vote won’t do it for you.
2. Those “regulars” who faithfully attend might be justified in taking offense at some of the comments in this thread. After all, they take time out of their schedules to do their civic duty and participate in our democracy. I can assure you that on Wed morning they are tired at work but go non-the-less. While there is a lot of grey hair in the audience, there is a representation of folks who have children in the schools.
3. There are often complaints that the entire system seems like it is run by insiders. There is truth to this claim. There are about 30-50 volunteers in town that put town meeting together in one form or another. Whether is it developing proposals, budgets, or vetting them the majority of the work that is done in presenting items to the ATM is done by volunteers. A typical Advisory member will devote 40 to 60 hours from Dec to April reviewing budgets and warrant articles, Selectmen the same if not more. For other volunteer groups Town Meeting is the culmination of their their labors for the year. So, yes there are “insiders” who have a lot of knowledge and information about a specific article.
While it is true that the vast majority of items sail through, the insiders don’t always get their way. There are any number of examples, such as Sat meetings and the Town Manager Proposal, where the “insiders” were all lined up in favor only to be voted down buy the Hall.
The good news is that there is no secret about how to become an “insider” just volunteer. The secret initiation ceremony is brief and no longer requires a blood sacrifice. I can assure you that if the system was willing to admit me then they will take anyone with a pulse.
4. There is talk about electronic voting. It is fun to talk about but don’t hold your breath. It would require state legislation and a lot of expensive infrastructure. Just remember that the State Legislature is very very happy with the election system that exists. It regularly and very reliably returns the incumbents to office. What incentive would they possibly have to tinker with that system?
I live in a Town in Massachussetts that holds Town Meeting on a Saturday in May. But Saturdays in May are full of activities for kids, sports, AP tests, SAT, projects, etc. Additionally, May means good weather and spring clean-ups. We have voted to move our Town Meeting to April in hopes of engaging more people.
BTW…On Saturdays, various groups of HS students offer on-site babysitting for a small fee. This is fun for the kids to be with their friends and good for parents as they can go in and out to check on kids.