Friday, November 30, 2012

Time to Zero Out TM Quorums

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Friday, November 30, 2012.

By Bill Gouveia

About 150 Mansfield citizens took time out of their busy schedules recently to attend a duly-called and posted Town Meeting. Those good folks were there to attend to the business of the town and make many decisions affecting the community as a whole.

But they were turned away and respectfully told to go home. They were not allowed to cast their votes or conduct town affairs. The meeting was postponed until April because Mansfield’s Town Meeting requires a quorum of 200 to conduct business. In essence, the 150 voters who showed they cared were neutralized by the thousands who were otherwise occupied.

That is – in a word – dumb.

Mansfield has over 13,000 registered voters. They are represented in part by a five-member board of selectmen and a five-member school committee. That means three members of either board can carry a vote. Those committees make major decisions which have tremendous impact on the citizens and taxpayers of that fine community.

They can apparently be trusted to do so, but 150 citizens are not considered sufficient to give final consent and endorsement of those choices. It is okay if you have 200 people making these decisions, but not 150. That is somehow not considered a representative group. This is a clear case of favoring quantity over quality.

The idea of having a quorum is to prevent a small number of citizens with possible selfish interests from showing up and dominating the Town Meeting. After all, 200 citizens represent a mere 1-1/2 percent of the total number of voters in town. You have to draw the line somewhere, right?

Wrong. You can take the step many other communities have successfully made and eliminate the quorum entirely. A zero quorum guarantees town business never goes undone and is conducted in an open and straightforward manner. It also means rewarding the participation of those who show up, and recognizing the silliness of creating an arbitrary standard that has proven to be nothing more than a political weapon.

The quorum is presented as a way to guarantee the integrity of Town Meeting, but in fact often does just the opposite. When a meeting runs late or is particularly boring (this happens quite often) many people go home. Those who stand to lose when a vote is taken often ask for a quorum count as a way to delay their defeat and give themselves time to rally more supporters – while appearing to be defending the concept of democracy.

In Norton, a zero quorum has been in effect for more than two decades. The overall impact has been to generally raise the average attendance at the meetings. Sure, there have been a few where participation has been under 100 hearty souls. There have also been meetings where 1500-2000 have turned out. But people know when and where the town’s business will be decided, and the idea of winning by staying away is not an option.

In fact, the fear of a handful of voters showing up and leading the town towards disaster has been a great motivating factor for Norton citizens. People tend to show up just so that can’t happen. Some believe fear and distrust is not the best way to inspire attendance, but the numbers and human nature say otherwise.

Many claim a quorum of at least 200 is needed to prevent special interest groups from “stacking” any particular Town Meeting with their supporters. Excuse me, but isn’t that really what Town Meeting is all about? Isn’t the whole idea to get more people to vote the way you want than the other side does? It’s only “stacking the meeting” if you lose. If you win, it’s a great exercise in democracy.

If you have controversial and “sexy” issues at your Town Meeting, people will turn out. If you merely have the important but mundane business of the town to conduct, you will attract fewer. That’s life and politics – which is exactly what you find at Town Meeting.

Here’s hoping Mansfield and other communities ditch the antiquated quorum requirement for this uniquely New England Town Meeting form of government. If you are going to have a system dependent upon citizen participation, you should accept that participation as it comes.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and the Norton Town Moderator. He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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