Friday, June 7, 2013

Town Meeting Reminds Me of "Weekend at Bernie's"

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on June 7, 2013.
By Bill Gouveia

            While flipping through a myriad of cable television channels late the other night, I came across a bad movie from 1989 that I remembered as amusing.  It was called “Weekend at Bernie’s”, and as I watched it again I realized it reminded me of something familiar, but couldn’t place just what it was.

            Then it hit me.  It was institution of Town Meeting, used by many communities here in New England.  Not all Town Meetings mind you, but quite a few.  Confused?  Please allow me to explain.

            In “Weekend at Bernie’s” the owner of a multi-million dollar corporation (Bernie) dies.  Two of his employees are dismayed by this because they fear they may be blamed and because it changes their lives.  But they soon discover people keep assuming Bernie is alive, and they can maintain the image Bernie is operating even though he is not.

            They dress him up, prop him up, and make it appear he is still performing many of the functions folks are used to seeing.  The business keeps moving, the money keeps flowing, and as far as most people know – Bernie is still behind it all.

            So what does this have to do with Town Meeting in some communities?  Well, I see many similarities between some legislative town meeting governments and the ill-fated Bernie.  They still produce funding, they still make business happen, but in actuality they are pretty much dead – even if they and the good people participating in it haven’t realized it yet.

            In small towns of just a few thousand residents, Town Meeting remains a vital, effective and efficient legislative body.  Citizens gather to discuss and vote on the important issues of the day, set the town budget, and represent a true cross-section of the community.  The institution remains true to its roots and heritage.

            But in larger towns of around 20,000 or more, Town Meeting is often more like the aforementioned Bernie.  It is visible and functioning, but more of a rubber stamp than an actual authority.  It still attracts some people, still produces votes and grants authority – but it is a shell of its former self.

            In many communities, Town Meeting attendance is shrinking.  People can’t or won’t take the time to attend.  When they do, they want to vote and leave.  In some towns there have been proposals to allow voting from home, letting people skip the pesky “discussion” phase..  There are lots of rules limiting said discussion, including time restraints for speakers.  As a result, town budgets totaling $50 million or more are often approved with little or no debate buy folks just seeing it for the first time.

            In many places the focus is on preserving Town Meeting.  It is hailed as the last true form of democracy, despite the inescapable fact most people don’t want to participate in it.  We try and protect what Town Meeting used to be, even though it’s not capable of doing the same things anymore.  Just like Bernie.

            The people who run local governments – selectmen and other town officials – are usually among the biggest defenders of Town Meeting.  Like the people who propped up Bernie, they put Town Meeting through its paces.  They create and perpetuate the illusion that this ancient and honorable legislative form of government can still be representative in the same way for modern large towns.

            It is sort of like a cowboy taking his horse and adding four wheels, a roof, and air conditioning – then claiming he doesn’t need to change to a car.  It is more about wistfully cherishing a memory than acknowledging the reality.

            As a current Town Moderator and a veteran of some 40 years of Open Town Meeting government, I love and respect the institution.  I grew up with it.  My town grew up with it.  It’s hard to think about letting go – until you realize most folks already have.

            When the people around Bernie finally realized he was gone, they did what people ultimately do – move on and adapt.  They continued accomplishing the same work, but in a different way.  And while some of them mourned Bernie’s passing, the rest made sure what he started continued on.

            Who said comedies can’t have a real message?

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

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