Monday, April 8, 2013

It Town Meeting an a la carte type Deal?


By Bill Gouveia

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, April 8, 2013. 

The Town of Westborough is not a neighboring community, but is experiencing an interesting governmental issue local communities have no doubt come across before.  It involves Open Town Meeting and those who show up for certain articles, vote, and leave.


A few weeks ago a quorum of Westborough voters began their Town Meeting.  But as the budget article approached, a steady influx of people began to stream in.  It turns out most were citizens interested in passing the school budget.  Many had received a series of text messages from people at the meeting letting them know the budget article was approaching.


That meant many of the busy folks who could not or did not want to devote many hours of their day to this civic duty could show up when their favorite topic was at hand, vote, and then leave.  After conclusion of the budget action, “at least 100 people” left the meeting, according to Advisory Finance Committee Chairman Edward Behn.


Behn worried that people coming for one issue and then leaving damages the integrity of Town Meeting.  He said, “I think whenever the integrity of the meeting is undermined, it hurts us all.” 


Selectman George Barrette also found the practice objectionable, although he noted it is certainly legal.  “We have a problem.  It’s a big one, and it’s not going to get better,” he added.


While the texting aspect is relatively new, the problem of voters leaving after voting on something of specific interest is not.  It is pretty common, and something local voters have complained about for decades.  And for many Open Town Meeting communities, it promises to keep occurring regularly.


Technology has not been friendly to the Open Town Meeting format.  Many citizens today prefer to watch meetings and gather information on their televisions or computers or smart phones.  Then they want to vote on the matter at hand quickly..  They would be happy to do it from home.  Many are willing to leave the more mundane and boring business for those able and wishing to actually spend hours in a school auditorium or gymnasium during their free time.


They see nothing wrong with going to only a certain part of the meeting, voting on the issue, and leaving.  When criticized for this, they often seem surprised. 


“Would you rather we stay at home and not be involved at all?” asked one local resident I questioned about this phenomenon.  When told some would prefer that over seeing folks just come, vote and leave, that same person responded:  “It’s the 21st century.  Times have changed.  Deal with it.”


And that person has a point.


In this day and age, it is difficult to get people to devote hours of their time to a governmental system that has changed little over the last few centuries.  Town Meeting is often tedious, plodding, and monotonous.  It is these things by its very nature, through no real fault of its own.


For a local political junkie like me, it is interesting and worthwhile.  For most normal folks, it is not.  This is clearly evidenced by the fact that an extremely small percentage of voters attend.


When they come and vote on something but refuse to stick around for complicated zoning articles or authorizing the revolving account for the annual white goods recycling day, we act surprised.  And we blame them – not the system that makes their lives difficult..


  OTM was never meant to be fast.  It was designed to be both democratic and thorough.  Most importantly, it was intended to be a voice for the people where every citizen has the opportunity to be heard and be counted. It is the purest form of democracy.


But it was never intended to be a vehicle for voting only on what you want, then going home.  Yet that is what it has become in many towns.  And because we can’t stop that, we pass rules to make it even easier.


I love and respect Open Town Meeting.  I continue to attend my own, and urge others to do the same.  But when they can’t devote hours to the process, I have trouble blaming them. 


Have they left their system of government – or has it left them? 


Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Town meeting is an anachronistic form of government. Better to allow people to vote by computer or text with a PIN or PASSWORD.