Letter: Town Meeting – We Need To Do Better

[Ed note: My Southborough accepts signed letters to the editor submitted by Southborough residents. Letters may be emailed to mysouthborough@gmail.com.

The following letter is from Al Hamilton.]

To the Editor:

Last Saturday we held the 297th Annual Town Meeting (ATM) and on its face, it was a success. The agenda was moved through in an orderly fashion, thoughtful debates were held, motions and amendments were made, seconded and voted on, $50+ million in taxes were authorized. 199 registered voters came out to do their civic duty and meet as the town’s legislature. Scratch below the surface the picture is less rosy. The practical reality is that Town Meeting is not representative of the town as a whole or the voters.

I appreciate those that do attend. Giving up 6 or 7 hours on a Saturday to guide, approve and correct your government is a sacrifice that needs to be recognized and appreciated. We should, however, be mindful of the real sacrifices made by those that paid the ultimate price so we can participate in governing ourselves when we consider the costs of a lost Saturday. 

Certain groups, by virtue of showing up, are over-represented at Town Meeting.  The four obvious categories are Town Employees/Retiree’s, Town Committee Members, Seniors and Single-Issue Voters.  It does not take a PHD from the Kennedy School to understand the presence of an institutional bias for the Status Quo.

Conversely, voters with children, and younger voters are underrepresented. We should also consider that over the last 20 years Southborough has become a much more diverse place and that diversity is not necessarily present on the floor of ATM.

We need to do better. We need to take active steps to expand the representation at Town Meeting. Possible changes include:

  1. A “Noisy Room” where parents with children can come and fully participate while keeping an eye on their children
  2. Providing Day Care
  3. Doing a better job of advertising and explaining how ATM works and why it is important.
  4. Make attendance/observation at an ATM for 2 hours a graduation requirement.
  5. Giving some serious thought to remote participation
  6. Consider changing to a Representative Town Meeting
  7. Raising the Quorum requirements to force the town leaders to do a better job in filling the hall.
  8. Establishing the date of ATM and other Town Meetings as early as possible
  9. Limiting other town activities on the date of Town Meeting
  10. Checking the dates of Town Meetings against the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu calendars.
  11. Civic outreach by town leaders to various communities explaining the importance of Town Meeting.

These are a few thoughts I am sure there are more. I encourage the Moderator, Clerk, Advisory Committee and Select Board to meet jointly to discuss how we can improve participation in Town Meetings. This should be a priority.

Democracy across the globe is under threat. There are real questions about whether self-governance can rise to the occasion. We have inherited this rare form of direct democracy from our forebearers. We, as custodians of Town Meeting, need to take active steps keep this institution representative, relevant and vibrant so we can hand it to future generations for their use.

Al Hamilton
35 Pine Hill Road

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John Kendall
21 days ago
Reply to  Beth Melo

If you look at the ancient history of Town Meeting (1970’s), it began at 7:00 PM on a Monday in April. No 45 minutes of BS on the rules. 10 minutes. Then the meeting began. Always ended at 11:00 PM. Continued the next evening at 7:00. If necessary, another session was held on Thursday evening. The gym at the old Woodward School was always full. It’s time to get back to that….when everyone cared

Tim Martel
21 days ago

Attendance at Town Meeting is a right and a privilege for all registered voters in Town. You cannot force people to attend. You can beg, plead, cajole…but ultimately it is an individual choice to make.
The simple fact is that most people do not wish to attend if they are satisfied with the status quo. Just like most people will not vote out incumbents from office during an election unless a major issue arises. Take it as a compliment.
I do not see that the Town needs to spend more money or more of its volunteer’s time trying to solve a non-issue. Voters tend to turn out when they feel their voice must be heard, and they are always welcome.
Most of all, I will never support remote participation at Town Meeting. Our government should not degrade into a “swipe right” circus.

Anita Reeder
17 days ago

I am a firm believer in Town Meeting and attended religiously when we lived in NH 40 years ago. It was held on a Saturday in early March and the attendance was overwhelming. When we moved to Southborough 30 years ago and found that TM was held on weeknights, always taking at least 2 nights, we were unable to attend most years. Conflicts with child care, children’s commitments, work commitments, etc. prevented our attendance. Finally, a few years ago, our town voted to hold our TM on a Saturday in early March and I was very excited that we would once again be able to attend and have done so…until this year. Unfortunately, being that is was a later Saturday in March, we had another commitment. I am not quite sure why it was a later March Saturday, but my understanding when we voted for this change was that it would be an early Saturday in the month, after winter sports and before spring sports started, thereby allowing the younger families to attend. That was not the case this year. And because it was a later Saturday, people may have already had plans made that could not be changed when the TM date was finally made public. I can cite the annual Easter Egg Hunt that Kindergroup so graciously sponsors every year as one victim. Expecting them to change from the week before Easter which is what they have done for as long as I can remember, is really not reasonable. Of course, the rain changed all that this year, but did TM also cause the rescheduling…
I am not sure why attendance is abysmal except that perhaps apathy and a failure to understanding exactly why it is an important civic responsibility we should all embrace may be part of the issue.
Speaking to the apathy segment, perhaps our citizens don’t think they have a say in what really happens, especially when it comes to the budget, which is most of the warrant, it seems….and let’s face it, much of the budget is out of our control, as stated by a commenter (I am sorry, I can’t find that comment and don’t recall who stated that) due to collective bargaining and state mandated programs. Younger families perhaps feel their children’s education is being covered well and don’t have any complaints. And let’s face it, most people who come to TM have a complaint, either about the budget or an article being proposed, whether it be by the town or a private citizen. When people are pleased with the status quo, I believe they might well feel it is a waste of their time to attend a meeting that will last for an entire day and part, if not all, of the evening. And expecting them to pay for babysitters at home is unrealistic…it could cost upwards of at least $100…not to mention how exhausting that could be for a teenager to care for the little darlings!!
I am not sure anything can be done about attendance at TM, it must come from the individual and except for educating our residents about its importance, I don’t think anything can be done to improve attendance.

Kathy Cook
12 days ago

Anita,
Thanks for your thoughts on Town Meeting.
Note that the by-law that governs the date of TM (Article 1 – Section 41.1) states that the ATM meeting will be on a Saturday no later than the last Saturday in March. The change to the date (2018 STM) was made in large part to support residents who have children that participate in various sports.
The Select Board spent significant time last night discussing the suspected reasons for the poor attendance this year. We also heard from two residents who are advocating for the meeting to stay on Saturdays but want the town to provide a way to allow children to be brought. They had some good ideas which we will discuss in the future.
As far as holding the meeting earlier in March – that is really hard. It takes alot of time and effort to put together the Warrant including the proposed budget. Some info needed for the budget is simply not available that early. I personally wish the meeting were late April/early May and I am not the only one that prefers that.
Jim Hegarty (our Town Clerk) is working on a report that will provide info on attendance at the last 20 ATMs. We will use that info in future discussions. So stay tuned.
Kathy Cook

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