Town Meeting 2018: Schedule and pace update; Review Committee findings; and STM for later date (Updated-again)

My update on this year’s Town Meeting comes with a bit of good news/bad news.

The good news is that next week’s Annual Town Meeting is still possibly a one night affair. (Scroll down for more on that.) The bad news is that we can expect to be called back for a second meeting this spring.

As some of you are aware, residents were collecting signatures over the weekend to compel a Special Town Meeting on an article to reaffirm the Zoning Board of Appeal quorum as 5 or 4 members. (You can read more about that here.) Residents were purportedly hoping to hold it during the Annual Town Meeting.

I understand why they thought that was possible, since Town Code does seem to list 7 days as the posting requirement. But state law requires 14 days notice for a Special Town Meeting.*

According to Town Clerk Jim Hegarty, the Town is required to hold the meeting with in 45 days of the filing. So, I guess we can expect it sometime between mid-April and mid-May.

[Editor’s Note: Since I wrote this post –  Residents behind the Citizen’s Petition Article who thought a Special Town Meeting would be compelled were notified that if they want the meeting they will need to submit a new petition with different wording. To learn more about that, click here to see the related Letter to the Editor.]

As for next Monday, Moderator Paul Cimino told selectmen he hopes to keep the Meeting on track for one night. He shared his plans at his review of the Warrant with the board in early March. But if you saw that meeting, you should know part of his plans have altered since.

He does hope to keep the meeting’s pace moving. With a few exceptions (like a presentation covering multiple articles) presentations will be 5 minutes or less. He also stated his intent to discourage commenters from simply repeating earlier comments.

But, despite earlier statements, Cimino won’t be getting the meeting off to an early start.

Cimino had hoped to kickoff the ceremony before the scheduled Warrant time of 7:00 pm. The idea was to have the Girl Scouts’ flag ceremony and the moderator introductions start early. The first Article would have been held until the clock struck 7.

But the moderator tells me that he got a lot of blowback from people who enjoy the opening ceremonies.

The intended change came out of the Town Meeting Review Committee’s findings. Their finding was that voters want the action to move quicker with better clarity.

The committee collected 248 responses to their survey. 64% of respondents supported reducing the moderator’s introduction. And 49.2% supported eliminating the awards and recognitions that take place during the opening ceremonies. 37% included comments, and overall comments were summed up as “consistent that the beginning of Town Meeting has too many announcements, introductions, comments and reports.”

Voters will get to vote on another suggested improvement that had survey support. 55% supported combining uncontested Articles for vote. On next week’s Warrant, Article 35 would allow creation of a “consent agenda”.

The TMRC also found that voters need a better understanding of how Town Meeting and our government works. Ongoing education was recommended especially for new residents.

Their findings were based on more than just he survey. They also researched other Town’s processes and learnings, plus options open to Towns for better ways to engage voters.

They concluded there wasn’t compelling data to support a shift to weekend meetings, as had been suggested by some in the past. And it doesn’t appear remote participation is legally viable.

Here’s the conclusion from their report:

  1. Data analysis of attendance at town meeting in comparable New England towns, did not indicate that changing the current meeting schedule (timeframe / weekday) made any significant difference in attendance numbers.
  2. Survey responses indicated status quo for ATM schedule and quorum. Survey comments contained a significant ‘night of meeting’ changes with procedures and processes.
    • Presentations are too long
    • Residents need education on how Town Meeting works
    • Clarifications are needed when amendments are made to motions
    • While remote participation was supported, there is no provision under State law for Remote Participation at Town Meetings
  3. Need for continuing education (type of government, how town government functions, citizen participation, etc.) which may increase resident participation. Southborough’s town democracy takes time and is not just a ‘show up and vote’ at town meeting process.

The committee did share optimistic news about participation:

It was interesting to note that the largest percentage of respondents were in the age range of 31-50 years. This may indicate that there is an interest to improve and partake in the process by the age group who are the town’s current and future leaders.

You can see their full report here.

*Southborough Town Code Chapter 41, section 2:

Notice of every Town Meeting shall be given by posting attested copies of the warrant on the Town website, at the Town House, the Southborough Library, the Senior Center and the transfer station seven days at least before the time appointed for such meeting.

Mass General Law Chapter 39, section 10:

Every town meeting or town election, except as hereinafter provided, shall be called in pursuance of a warrant, under the hands of the selectmen, notice of which shall be given. . . at least fourteen days before any special town meeting.

Updated (4/4/18 6:18 pm): Hegarty notified me that the signatures have been verified on the submitted Citizen’s Petition. That compels the Town to hold the meeting by May 19th. I will let readers know when that is scheduled. In the meantime, you can view the petition here.

Updated (4/8/18 1:57 pm): I updated with an Editor’s note after receiving a Letter to the Editor that the situation has changed. Residents behind the Citizen’s Petition Article were notified that if they want the meeting they will need to submit a new petition with different wording. To learn more about that, click here.

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