Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Town Meeting Just Doesn't Mean Discussion Anymore

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on June 20, 2013
By Bill Gouveia

            Former Sun Chronicle Editor Ned Bristol this week wrote an excellent column on the recent Wrentham Town Meeting where voters turned out in force to reject a rezoning article that would have permitted a large commercial development.  He noted how voters “packed” the meeting to get what they wanted.

            As a local Town Moderator, I have always disliked the term “packing the meeting”.  It means one side of a particular issue got more people to come to a meeting and vote the way they wanted than did their opponents.

            Isn’t that really the whole point of Town Meeting, and in fact the democratic process?  It’s usually only called “packing” by those on the unsuccessful end of the outcome.  If you are on the prevailing side, it is referred to as “an exercise in complete and total democracy”.  It’s all a matter of perspective.

            But Ned nailed the main point, which is that Town Meeting really doesn’t run local government like it did a century or two ago.  Nor is it any longer a place where the community gathers to discuss the important issues of the day.  Today – for the most part – Town Meeting is where people go to vote and go home. 

            Of course, none of this applies to the few faithful and dedicated Town Meeting regulars in small towns across New England who consistently attend, listen, and vote in the best interests of their community.  Sadly, they have become the overwhelming minority in the modern political town meeting process.

            In the Sun Chronicle area, voters seem content to leave most of the decisions required to run local government to their elected and appointed officials.  They still want the final say on some of the bigger matters (or at least the illusion of having the final say), but generally don’t want to be bothered with the details. 

            That’s why public hearings on local budgets are usually attended by only a handful of people.  It’s why Planning Board hearings usually draw only those directly affected in the immediate neighborhood.  And it’s why most Town Meetings can’t attract more than two or three percent of their town’s registered voters unless there is a major controversy.  Wrentham had 500 voters at the first session of its annual meeting where the zoning article appeared - and only 43 the next.

            One of the most common and popular motions at today’s modern Town Meetings is to “move the question”, thus ending debate.  While it is sometimes necessary, more often than not the maker just wants to do what nearly everyone else in the room wants to do – cut to the chase.  Vote and leave.  Or as Ned so eloquently put it, “…vote, go home, pay the baby-sitter and get a few hours sleep before work the next day.”

Town Meeting today is too often the last safe haven for special interests.  The school department needs more money and can’t convince the town manager or the finance committee to support it?  Call the parents and turn them out for Town Meeting.  After all, you don’t need to make a compelling case if you have the votes.  The fire or police departments need a budget boost or a new piece of equipment?  Call out all the employees and their families to make it happen.

            And you know what?  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  It’s the way the system is designed to work, and they are only playing the game within rules they have been given.

            It is the system that needs changing, not the people.  We have to stop pretending the Town Meeting style of government is still a good fit for communities like Seekonk, Foxboro, Mansfield, Norton, Rehoboth, and Wrentham.

            Town Meeting’s biggest problem is not that it is antiquated, inefficient, obsolete or easily manipulated by those with something to gain.  Rather, Town Meeting’s biggest problem is that it is no longer relevant.  It is also no longer a place where true discussion and deliberation happens very often.

            Ned wrote he would have rather seen two high school English classes debate the Wrentham zoning issue because the discussion would have been less political and maybe something new would have been heard.  I totally agree with him. 

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

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