Monday, February 25, 2013

North Attleboro's Government Getting Worse

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, February 25, 2013

By Bill Gouveia

On April 2 North Attleboro will hold a municipal election and once again present voters with some non-binding ballot questions regarding the structure of town government. This is yet another sad commentary on what has arguably become the worst and least representative town government in this area.

North has an elected 135-member Representative Town Meeting legislative form of government, with a five-member Board of Selectmen and a weak town administrator position. This past year a dedicated and concerned group of citizens formed a committee that conducted what was termed a “successful effort” to increase interest and turn out candidates for the town meeting seats. These posts usually feature few if any contested races and no candidates at all for a large number of positions.

These good folks worked hard, and the results were significant. But their “successful efforts” must be viewed through the prism of reality. Success in this case means there are fewer town meeting member positions with no one at all running for them. In terms of actual contests and true choices, there are few if any. The bottom line is North Attleboro voters have consistently shown little to no interest in their current form of government over the last decade or so.

And why should they? North Attleboro’s town government is largely made up of longtime local residents and special interests more intent on preserving the present than forming the future. That is hardly unusual, but in this case is extreme. Town government has a long and well-documented history of ignoring the expressed will of the people and manipulating their votes to mean what town officials want it to mean.

Over the years selectmen have put multiple non-binding questions before the voters. The questions asked are usually vague and eventually meaningless. The results have proven not to matter, since local politicians and citizens just put their own spin on them and do what they want anyway. So why do they do it?

Simple – it’s a great political maneuver. It allows them to appear they are listening and empowering the voters, while in actuality preserving and protecting their own positions and power bases. And since it is all non-binding – what’s the harm?

Selectmen John Rhyno typified that attitude in his recent remarks. When explaining his vote to place more non-specific and non-binding questions on the ballot, the veteran selectman said, “It never, ever hurts to ask voters what they think. I don’t have a problem asking the voters 20 times because the last time I knew, we answer to them and they’re in charge.”

Selectman Rhyno’s comments are just wrong on so many levels. First, if you have to ask the voters something 20 times, you are doing a really bad job of posing the question. Secondly, if the voters are actually “in charge” then why do you need to make their vote non-binding? And finally, it does indeed hurt when you keep asking pretty much the same questions over and over while ignoring the answers you don’t like.

One of the questions to be on the upcoming ballot is” “Do you want a mayor form of government for the town of North Attleboro?” How in the world are voters supposed to make an informed decision on that vague question without being told at the very least the following details:

What will the powers of the mayor be? Will there be a town council or a town manager also? Will the mayor’s position be a full-time paid spot? What other town positions will be changed or eliminated? How long will the mayor’s term be? How would the transition take place? What is the financial impact of such a change?

This process is dumb. There simply is no other better word for it. It is insulting to the citizens of North Attleboro, and an embarrassment to town government.

It seems the people of North Attleboro are constantly being blamed for not participating enough in their government. The truth is, their government spends a great deal of time and effort making sure their participation is limited. Their leaders are more than happy to let them make decisions – as long as they don’t really count.

North Attleboro doesn’t need more non-binding ballot questions. But it sure could use more real leadership.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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