[Ed note: My Southborough accepts signed letters to the editor submitted by Southborough residents. Letters may be emailed to email@example.com.]
To the Editor:
While I chair the Public Safety Building Study Committee, the following opinion is mine and mine alone.
I love Town Meeting with all its quirks. In the last 2 nights we have seen Town Meeting at its best and worst.
At its best, we saw concerned citizens band together, working with the Town Leadership to preserve a historic building. We saw citizen initiatives receive careful discussion and both pass and fail. And we saw truth spoken to power in the rejection of the Rt 30 plan.
At its worst we have seen the power of a very small minority of people to defeat needed progress in the disposition of surplus buildings and the same Rt. 30 plan.
For major decisions, I regret that Town Meeting has become the place where change goes to die. I have regularly called out our elected leaders when they have acted in error but I do feel sorry for them. It is worth noting that each of our Selectmen was elected by roughly 3-10 times the number of who attend Town Meeting. More than 10 times the number of people in Southborough voted for Medical Marijuana than attended last night’s meeting. Last night years of hard work were disposed of in summary fashion and legitimate attempts supported by a wide majority of attendees to finally begin dealing with our rotting infrastructure were thwarted by the few. I for one am glad I lost my bid for Selectmen.
As I reflect, in light of the expected veto, I question whether the town should invest any further effort in building a Public Safety Complex. That complex will require several 2/3 votes (66.67% by the way) and will require making decisions about the disposition of another rotting building, a potentially controversial acquisition of land and a very large borrowing. The effort and cost required to bring this project to the floor is substantial and the prospects for success appear dim at best. It is hard to ask citizen volunteers or town employees to tilt at this windmill.
I think there is a possible answer but I doubt it will pass muster. We could change to a representative town meeting. In a representative town meeting members from each precinct are elected. In general, these are not contested elections but it would provide the town with a defined legislature and would prevent ad hoc coalitions from showing up for a single vote either yea nor nay. It would encourage a legislature that was interested in governing the whole town at the expense of the casual participant. As I say, I have been a huge fan of Open Town Meeting but I fear that as practiced in Southborough, its effectiveness may be coming to an end. I believe this should change should be given careful consideration. Of course we all know what happens to change in Southborough….
Well… here I am, of course. No surprise that I’m skeptical of rep. TM. Towns who have done that (not many but Framingham is one) seem to end up with people who like getting elected but not necessarily like showing up at the meeting. Sure if we had a very representative bunch equally dedicated to doing homework and listening to constituents and preparing for the debate…. Also… having a couple who don’t show up throws off the whole balance and some sections of town would end up making the decision.
If someone wants to go out and do a study of the few towns with rep and who it works…would be helpful. I’m going to look up how many of the 351 have rep TM and will mention that soon (leaving out the cities, of course, and a couple of towns who have chosen to elect town councils).
Donna, Thanks for the research. I also wonder if we were instead talking about the massive new condo project, would we hear a completely different take on representive government. It seems there has been great dissatisfaction with various board members and accusations of less-than-above board dealings with the developer. I am not taking sides on their issue, I am just saying this blog has had fierce comments about our current reps that would not encourage handing over more authority to them .
Thanks for you conversion from fractions to percentage Al.
Al, Thank you for your comments. I have known you to be an ardent supporter of town meeting. That said, your frustration and concerns are exactly those James Madison cautioned people about over 200 years ago. And, it was Madison’s concerns that resulted in the U.S. Constitution establishing America as a republic rather than a democracy.
Madison foresaw a real and genuine danger in the type of “direct democracy” as practiced in our town that transcends mere considerations of efficiency and expertise. That danger was the problem of faction. For Madison, “a faction” consisted of “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Madison wrote that faction is endemic in any broad community–in his words, “sown in the nature of man.” The Founders were so concerned about faction, so concerned about “direct democracy”, and so attracted to the republican principles advanced by Madison (which parallel the representative form of government you posit as “change”), that they inscribed it into the Constitution as a requirement for both state and federal governments. Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution, provides that “[t]he United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”
I often hear people say that “town meeting is the purest form of democracy.” That saying incorrectly omits the important word “direct” before democracy. Town meeting is not, has never been, nor was ever designed, to be the purest form of “representative democracy.” This is as true today as it was over 200 years ago.
The perennial problem for any direct democracy, however, including our town meeting, is how to make enough people participate so that the law is not being made by an unelected, small minority of citizens. For Madison, the people were prone to follow “passion over reason,” and to look to a “single orator, or an artful statesman, [who] was generally seen to rule as if a sceptre had been placed in his single hands.” Assuming more people do not take up the charge to participate, the faction problem inherent in town meeting direct democracy is here to stay, and the few will continue to govern the whole.
It is tempting to say that anyone who is unwilling to sacrifice a few hours to exercise their right to vote doesn’t much deserve it. That, however, identifies but does not solve the problem. I have floated the idea of exploring remote participation as a way to perhaps engage more of the citizenry. While some may doubt it and others may not like it, the Internet is here to stay. While I fully acknowledge the existence of legitimate concerns relating to security, authenticity of votes, etc., I do think we as a town need to explore every available option to increase participation.
And how is that representative form of government working for us right now in Washington? We currently have the lowest amount of legislation ever accomplished in an 8 year period. A “Faction” managed to shut down the whole US Government at a cost of billions of dollars for a principle (passion over reason) that had been presented I think 62 times and defeated.
Our Town Meeting may have accomplished more with approval of the budget and discussion of 39 articles, than the entire US Congress, our representative form of government, has done in 6 years.
As a former resident of NH some 25 years ago, we had a very successful town meeting EVERY year…not just those where there were issues of passion on the warrant. How did we do this? By having our TM on a Saturday in early March, in between public and private school vacation weeks, before March Madness and before outdoor spring projects take over. The Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts showed up to sell us cookies and hotdogs, youth groups babysat for those parents whose regular sitter was already booked a year in advance to babysit for another regular and we got the business done in less than a day.
It is very difficult for many to get to town meeting at night. Parents whose children need help with homework and need to get to bed on time for school the next day feel that is a priority, and rightly so. Moms and Dads whose jobs don’t allow them to be home in time to eat before, let alone home at all before the start of the meeting, older people who just do not want to drive at night anymore, parents whose jobs require them to travel, and the list goes on. Fort those who say that all those reasons are just excuses….poppycock! These are real reasons and are not going to go away.
Changing the day of TM has been knocked around, but never very seriously. Perhaps it is time to pursue a different path and not just keep hoping that people’s lives will suddenly allow them the opportunity to attend TM on not just one week night, but two…and sometimes three! TM is a very important form of government, let’s try to make it a reasonable event to participate in for all…
I agree that a Sat meeting would be better or at least worth a try. However, a trial Sat meeting was proposed several years ago and soundly defeated. Remember, moving to a different day has to be approved by the people that took the time to show up on the day at hand.
Change is hard for most people. I know that it was mentioned in passing once in the past, but has not, to my knowledge, been advertised, talked up or discussed at length in any informative way. Perhaps it is time that happened. Our selectmen/woman would have to be on board with it, that is for certain. I understand where Mr. Rooney is coming from wanting to use technology, I am just not at all convinced that it would work with this type of meeting. It works in the business environment most times because those involved are using video conferencing. Even if they are calling in, there is certainly not the numbers utilizing the remote meeting avenue that would be anticipated with a TM format. Not even sure you can recognize people in order. There is software out there that would help. but at what cost. There is something to be said for face to face debate and discussion at TM that would not be afforded with a remote vehicle. Can this be a ballot question to be voted on at town elections or only at TM as a warrant article?
To the best of my knowledge there is nothing similar to the citizen petitions that have been used in state government to provide an alternative to the legislature when enacting laws (eg prop 2.5 or medical marijuana). So there is no ballot question alternative to town meeting
Town meeting is the towns only legislature. It enacts laws and authorizes taxes. Some of it’s actions also require approval at the ballot box (borrowing and 2.5 overrides for example) but there is no provision for the ballot box to override Town Meeting.
Good idea. Can a petition process allow this Saturday idea to be put on the ballot? If we can get it done before the presidential election, we would have the greatest percentage of voters deciding.
Wow, what a great discussion and debate by a liberal, a conservative and a libertarian! I am honestly thoroughly impressed and my accolades go out to you all. This one article on the blog should be read by all. Thank you Al, McDaniel nd Rooney for your commitments and service to the Town of Southborough. This should be used as a national model. PS I too am leery of “Motor Voter” registration and voting, but, I do support the exploration of remote internet voting for our town.
And Anita, That is a fantastic idea. I agree wholeheartedly.
Al, Thank you for the thoughtful editorial. I disagree. I think that what we have shown consistently over the past 40 years that I have attended Town Meetings is that well-informed citizens with a vested interest in the outcome will come and participate. They present and exchange ideas. They listen to others and vote. The Selectpersons and the Advisory Board are given great weight and their time and opinion respected, whether or not one agrees. Individual Town Employess and Citizens are allowed to state their case and they must answer thoughtful questions from attendees.
The new and better influence which is IMPROVING Town Meetings is the media—this blog, other online news sources, the available public records of meetings, and the ability to quickly research data online regarding any issue. We are much better informed and not so “casual” a participant as you suggest.
The two major projects of Main St Reconstruction and the Public Safety Complex are not AT ALL the same. There were concerns over Main St from the very beginning. Many citizens participated in the ongoing discussions and various boards and committees put in a lot of hard work, as did individual citizens. It was not voted down by a few. It was a close vote with parties on both sides equally represented at the Town Meeting and thoughout the process. It had been contentious from the beginning and therefore the result should not be a surprise.
The Public Safety Complex will garner much more support, despite its expense. It will have a clearer definition. It will have clear boundaries. The needs are specific and well laid out. I encourage going forward.
Finally, the fault with selling Fayville Hall was twofold. One, there had not been sufficient discussion prior to the Meeting. Two, we attendees were so tired and anxious to get on to the final more controversial articles, that no one bothered to Amend the Motion to remove Fayville Hall from the article and pass the other two properties over to the Selectmen. It was Town Meeting disintegrating and no chance to add a third night due to Ms. Hoolahan’s personal busy schedule.
Let’s keep Town Meeting going. It is a pure form of democracy—the original “blog” of ideas but where one must show their face to speak and vote! How great is that!!
I am under no allusion that we will have a representative town meeting in my lifetime. It was just food for thought. My real goal was to get people to understand that we have a problem.
With respect to the Public Safety Complex. A group of citizens and town employees have been working for a year and a half to bring an affordable program before town meeting. Based on my understanding of the project somewhere between 2 and 4 2/3 votes will be required. I can assure you that some of these votes will have some controversy associated with them. There is no one vote solution, I am certain of this because the proposed facility does not fit on the land available. Hence there needs to be vote to borrow and a vote or votes related to land and structures.
To finish the proposal and bring it before Town Meeting will require another 4-6 months of hard work by volunteers and town employees. Based on my reading of the mood of Town Meeting I think getting multiple, potentially controversial, 2/3 votes is a three-bank-shot. I have a real hard time asking people to put in that type of effort to work on a long shot.
This project has already been run off the rails once, 8 years ago, by the disciples of King Ludd. I am afraid we are setting up for more of the same.
One of the side effects of this weeks rejections will be a dampening of enthusiasm for volunteer public service.
If it’s that necessary and for the PD it’s urgent, then if it fails the town needs to keep pursuing it. Other towns have done this. In Hyannis the fire department tried for seven or so years to get it passed.
Who exactly do you suggest do the heavy lifting? We have been trying for at least 10 years.
I’d just like to point out that 1/3 is not a very small minority. There is a reason why over 1/3 of the people voted against that article, but that doesn’t seem relevant to this discussion.
That rant aside, I do agree that for major decisions, town meeting is a problem. But as a person who just shows up and votes on what is presented, I don’t really understand why all the annoyances of Town Meeting exist in the first place. Why should the public safety complex require multiple votes? It should just be one! all of it at once, one debate.
Mr. Rooney suggested that there must be some ways to modify town meeting as it stands to encourage greater participation, but I’m not sure even internet viewing/voting would even change much. Time is 100% the problem, 90+% of the issues are easy, everyone knows their opinion ahead of time and people could just vote. I know there are pros/cons to these and many aren’t at all feasible/legal and some defeat the purpose of TM, but here’s what would fix TM for me.
1) A mailer (email?) that TM is even occurring. Without this blog, I’d probably miss it.
2) Put all the interesting/divisive articles in a group (beginning or end). I know that isn’t as easy as it sounds, but if the Burnett house, medical marijuanna, selling the town properties, and main st. were all grouped together people would be less likely to leave after their issue and at the very least we would have had all 450 that attended night one voting on those issues.
3) Somehow get rid of (or again group) all those articles that just pass. I don’t know how to be sure which are those but just going through the motions on them wastes too much time.
4) Just vote first thing, if it’s some super majority like greater than 80/20, then done, no presentations/no debate. We spent a long time debating the Burnett House when it was just going to pass no matter what, we could have saved all that time.
5) Limit presentation time. (2 minutes?) This would force presenters to get at the heart of the issue rather than people spending 10 minutes on how great a b&b would be even though the article had nothing to do with it.
6) Limit duration of discussion. The moderator does a good job, but it’s still way too long. Maybe a mandatory vote to see if were ready to vote every five minutes?
7) Have presentations/arguments pro/con online ahead of time. If people weren’t making up their mind at TM then we could just vote.
8) All amendments must be submitted before the meeting. I get that the point is they might come from debate, but I think all from this past town meeting could have been pre-submitted.
9) Get rid of all the annoying loopholes such as that nonsense where something can be voted on and then brought up again later for revote.
I certainly agree that there are some things that could be done to streamline town meeting. Limiting presentations and speaker time (even Congress does that).
I think some article consolidation could also be done along the lines of what is done with the budget.
Just remember, all these changes have to be approved by Town Meeting.
I love the idea of reviewing the entire warrant just as we do the budget and only “Hold” those articles that anyone wants to debate.
Considering the amount of time spent in the hall, I find it frustrating to hear 20 minute presentations and rationales about an Article that is going to be passed almost unanimously.
I’d wager we could gain a couple of precious hours for meaningful debate if we could follow such a plan.
Maybe the new Moderator can push something thru???
It’s just one question that residents could pose on April 28 at the candidates night at the library! With three candidates in the running, it may make sense for people looking for changes to or explanations about Town meeting procedures to come to the library that night.
M – that’s a very good observation that the people who have a vested interest in the town will attend. Certain groups and new groups to Southborough never attend because they tend to be transients and move around very quickly. So the folks that are left here want to stay here for long periods of time attend the meetings and make the decisions the others just keep paying the taxes and go long with whatever happens. Very good observation
Your complaint is not new the same complaints have been around forever. I’m sure Donna can remember the same complaints when she was a selectman along with Tom and Lou. I bet you’d hear the same thing from Aldo. It is the best system and if you work you can get things done but you have to organize and advocate for passage or defeat of an article long before town meeting, it’s been done before.
I share Al’s frustration at the short-sighted vote by a small coterie of people that puts the town in the position of trying to figure out how to fix what is a crumbling, ugly, and embarrassing Main Street. I think there were numerous factions at play this time at Town Meeting.
First, the breakdown of the PA system ensured that not only would TM go to the second night, but that attendance would be probably half of what it was the first night. Had we soldiered on with a working PA the first night, we may have had a much more representative assemblage of citizens and gotten to the Main Street warrant article.
Now granted there was surely a “lobbying” group the first night to save the Garfield/Burnett mansion, but we’ll never know how many of those people would have voted for the Main Street Improvement project. Instead, the second night saw what amounts to a lobbying faction come out to turn down 6 to 7 million dollars of state money and literally throw 2 years of intelligent and collaborative work by the Main Street Committee under the bus.
One other thing that seemed completely uninformed was the use of the term “highway” in a derisive way. It turns out that a highway (from Wikipedia) ” is any public road or other public way on land. It is used for major roads, but also includes other public roads and public tracks…” Wikipedia shows a “highway” that is similar to what we have now. In fact, Route 30 is in fact already categorized as a highway. The term “highway” can also refer to an unpaved dirt road owned by a town.
I attended a couple of the Main Street Working Group public meetings and it was clear Southborough was going to be beautified by the plan. I guess, as an afterthought, it might have helped people if the plan had been able to be turned into a computerized model showing what it would really look like.
I grew up in Southborough. My mother’s family, the Onthanks, have lived in Southborough continuously since 1754. Southborough is NOT rural. Southborough is a suburb with about 10k residents who deserve a Main Street they can be proud of, not one where everyone parks on “make-believe” sidewalks and then has to walk in the street to get to their destination (e.g. Morris Funeral Home). Change and improvement are not our enemies.
I assume that now DPW will have to apply for Chapter 90 $ which in and of itself will have state regulations about how the street will look as well. Whatever the case, Main Street MUST be repaired and we must have real sidewalks of some sort.
Thankfully, our government has built-in checks and balances, which is what we witnessed on the floor of Town Meeting earlier this week. Some of those failed articles will come back again, and be better for it. Those that don’t come back possibly shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
In regards to citizens not showing up to Town Meeting – well, we’re all busy (I know I am). Its a choice we all have to make. Civic duty is not easy, nor should it be.
But why shouldn’t we make civic duty easy? Why throw obstacles in the way of people? I was at my kids’ concert at Algonquin until 9 p.m. that night and then raced over to Trottier for the town meeting and then went home at 11:30 to help a child with homework. It was an exhausting evening. You’re right, I made a choice to attend because I cared about some of the issues enough to come, but on other nights I might just throw in the towel because life gets in the way. I’m new to Massachusetts and have never seen direct democracy like we have here. I’m accustomed to voting for city council members and then they vote on the issues. There are pluses and minuses to both systems. But I think we would have a better system if we set it up to make it easier for people to vote, not harder. And so it would be a good idea to look at some of the ideas espoused on this thread: changing the meeting date/time, looking at Internet voting, limiting the time for comments, etc. etc.
No surprise that I’m thinking about this a whole lot–and I have to get the thoughts together to write my Villager column for next Friday (and can also be found after that on “Wicked Local”…the most wicked title imaginable for a section of a newspaper). For now, I’m even encouraged by some of the comments more consonant with my own. One that isn’t–the idea of staying home and pushing a key on the keyboard! In brief; could do that without ever hearing a word of reasoning on either side or, heaven forbid, getting to know the speakers and the pluses and minuses in their arguments.
Thanks to all the people involving themselves in this question! Who knows we might have even voted on more significant items in our two night sessions as Congress has in …what … the last few months or ??
“One that isn’t–the idea of staying home and pushing a key on the keyboard!”
How about those people who have to be on the road in order to support the over the top property taxes?
A few things,
1.In some towns the actual reading of the warrant article is waved and only the motion is read. At the start of the meeting the moderator makes a motion to wave reading of the warrant articles, unless specifically asked to do so. The warrant articles are posted and are in the TM handout, this takes time.
2. Also the first night there is a presentation by many boards and committee’s. These reports could be in the annual town report for anyone to read but they do not have to take TM time.
3.The moderator should limit time at the mic. to 2 minutes and limit a persons number of trips to the mic at two per article.
4.Amendments to articles should be made in writing to the moderator before the meeting, or at least at the time of discussion. A person’s lack of planning ahead and having this ready should not hold up the meeting. There were several long waits waiting for people to write out an amendment which should have been done sooner.
I agree that change is necessary, and also agree that a complete overhaul of the system is highly unlikely. But I think many of the suggestions raised in these comments to streamline and modernize the process are fantastic and should be thoroughly explored, and we shouldn’t stop there. There is more our Town could be doing to promote not only participation, but informed participation. As a working mom of young kids, I can attest that it is basically impossible to find a babysitter till 11:30 on a weeknight (and not so great to have to stay up that late with early mornings and full days ahead), and especially for multiple nights in a row, which means that my husband and I both can’t attend Town Meeting. I would absolutely be in favor of moving it to a Saturday and making it more of a family friendly and community oriented event. But there also needs to be more effort to reach people and make it easier to get involved. This blog is great (due to Beth’s tireless work!), but I’m always surprised at how many citizens still don’t know about it. We need to find ways to advertise it more, and to reach people through Facebook, email, and other resources. If there is a way we could incorporate this information into welcome packets for new citizens (and businesses too) maybe we could increase participation. The Main Street project is a perfect example of our failure to reach people. I know the Committee held many public meetings, but for those who did not attend the meetings or who don’t regularly keep up with the blog, it would be hard to know what was going on – and in fact I’d bet the majority of our citizens don’t even know it was an issue and if they did know would have supported it. The committee did great work, but a great product is only as good as its ability to sell, and it was not sold.
Some towns have a one night spring town meeting to discuss budget items and a fall one night meeting to discuss all other items.
I believe that if Town Meeting was convinced that it put up road blocks to participation based on race or income or religion or hair color those in attendance would take prompt (well, prompt by TM standards anyway) to rectify this injustice.
I think it is time to recognize that participation in this institution is not as open as we often preach it is. There are substantial impediments to participation. The grim reality is that town meeting is not really open if:
You have young children
You have children in school
You work late
You have a job that starts early
You travel regularly for business
It is time to make “Open Town Meeting” more open by holding our Annual Meeting on Saturday. It is not a perfect solution but it would be a step towards making our 275 year old institution more inclusive and welcoming to all.
Many young children play sports on weekends, and their parents are often either volunteers or spectators. Others have jobs on the weekend. If the weather is nice, some will refuse to spend a Saturday indoors. I don’t think moving to Saturday is going to help improve attendance – it will just shift the demographics of the attendees.
Here are four suggestions to improve town meeting:
1. Run through the articles and allow people to call for a hold on any items to hold for discussion. The rest can be packaged into a single vote. We do this with the budget appropriations, and it works well. Also seems legal (“In accordance with the by-laws, all articles in the Warrant are considered in the order in which they appear in the Warrant, unless the Town Meeting votes to change the order.”)
2. Eliminate article 1. These reports from various boards/committees can be communicated to the townsfolk in better ways, and there is no meaningful vote on this article so its mainly a time sink.
3. Allow articles to be presented simply as “Article [x], as written in the warrant” instead of requiring the presenter to read the entire verbiage before proceeding to summation/discussion.
4. Determine up front where the cut-off will be for the first night. Sure its nice to try to push as much into night one as possible just to get through it all, but I think many people would attend if they had a better idea of when the “article of interest” was going to be discussed. People don’t want to spend the entire evening listening to articles about which they just don’t care.
Hence why I said, in an earlier comment, to be held on a Saturday in early March…that is after basketball, and before soccer, baseball and any other spring sport start. Although my children, and many others, played sports, not all do….and I think it would be easier for many more parents with children to be able to participate. It surely cannot hurt to give it a try, can it? It is not working this way, that is for sure. For all the reasons I stated in my earlier comment and those that Al just stated, I truly think it is a solution that should be put out there for the town to vote on or the selectmen/woman to seriously consider.
I wouldn’t strongly oppose the idea – weeknights are no more convenient for me than weekends. :)
Though I’ll mention that a large and growing segment of youth sports is club/aau rather than town/travel. So the traditional sports seasons/gaps are out the window.
I might suggest that you get a petition form from the town clerk. Mr. Hegarty is very helpful and can get you started. 10 signatures get your article on the annual warrant, and 100 forces a nearly immediate special town meeting. If the selectmen are planning a fall town meeting anyway, you can probably convince them to add your article to it with less than the full 100.
This year, I think there were more than 400 people in the house at TM.
There’s plenty of notice and the vast majority of us can get there if we so desire.
I think it really says that many folks are quite content with how the town runs itself already and have no strong desire to give up an evening ( or an afternoon ) to vote on things that will keep the town running as it always has.
Smaller crowds = smaller controversies.
Most of us aren’t very effected by Main Street traffic renovations; most of us are ambivalent about a very controlled and scrutinized medical marijuana dispensary on Route 9; most of us are ok with spending Community Preservation dollars to save what seems to be an historic and quite handsome structure.
If something dramatic was about to happen, there’s history that shows we’ll get strong attendance. The TM’s that decided the fate of Algonquin vs a new Southboro High School played to overflow crowds for a couple of years!
Weekends are no better for TM: people have alternate plans, families plan major life events, kids sports are prevalent , and I suspect that at least as many people work during weekend afternoons as they do weeknight evenings and so forth.
I seem to be in the minority but I don’t think TM is so broken that major overhaul is necessary.
Speeding up the TM to improve the odds of completing it in one night seems to have greater potential.