Monday, November 11, 2013

Will North Attleboro Voters get to Decide?

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, November 11, 2013

by Bill Gouveia

At some point, you run out of excuses. Your feet get flat from being dragged so much. Your fingernails are worn to nubs from your desperate attempts to hang on as you are being dragged forward. Eventually, you have to let go and allow yourself to be pulled into the present and - perhaps - stage your biggest battle right there.
Welcome to local government - North Attleboro style.
Last week it was reported work is still being done on the special act charter which would allow voters the option of changing to a mayoral/town council form of government. The proposal - which has been around in the same general format for close to a decade - has yet to make it before the voters for any binding action. But now town officials say it is getting closer to the point where citizens can actually make the choice denied them for almost a generation.
"I know we have a lot more work to do, but we're getting there. It's a lot cleaner and a lot neater than what we had before," Selectman Michael Thompson reported recently. Officials have been working with a representative from a state agency to "clean up" the document, which many thought was never all that "messy." However, the board has given no estimate of just when the proposal that has been discussed since before some of them were elected might get to actually be decided.
Of course, the question of change has many hurdles to pass even if it manages to escape the bowels of North's town hall. Chief among them is it needs to be passed along to voters by one of the very institutions it seeks to replace - The Representative Town Meeting, or RTM.
North's RTM has steadfastly and consistently refused to consider or defeated attempts to reform itself over the years.
It is a bulky body with few members who have actually gained their seats through contested elections. It has in the past voted against even reducing its own size, despite often having vacancies it cannot fill.
So if and when the charter proposal is forwarded by selectmen, it will have to be sent on to the voters by the RTM. That does not mean they have to approve it or recommend it, but rather just allow it to be placed before the same voters who elected them. If history is any indication, the likelihood of that happening is not very high.
And that really is the crux of this matter. While the decision of whether or not to change North's form of government is certainly important and requires careful attention to detail, the truth is this is much more about whether or not the will of the voters and citizens actually matters.
Oddly enough, this is about deciding what form of democracy actually makes the decision of whether or not to alter this particular form of democracy. Do the people themselves get to cast their ballots on how they are ultimately represented at the local level? Or do the institutions which are the objects of their undeniable desire for change maintain the ultimate veto power?
In no other area community does the difference between the government itself and the community members at large seem wider than in North Attleboro. As in many local towns, voter turnout has been a problem. But here it may be largely because the voting populous is tired of being asked for their opinion, and then having it ignored.
Several times North voters have expressed their desire for governmental change via non-binding referendum questions at the polls, only to have their votes explained away by those with personal political power bases in need of protecting. The voters and citizens who live in the present seem to be constantly in conflict with those who cling to the North Attleboro they remember and want to preserve.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to determining if North's government should change. That is up to the good people who live there to decide.
But those same folks deserve the chance to make the actual binding decision. The time for stalling and delaying is over. Let North Attleboro vote on its future, and let their decision truly mean something.

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

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