Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ignoring Voters Normal In North Attleboro

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, June 16, 2014.

By Bill Gouveia

There is a general rule that should apply to all local governments when dealing with the voters who elect them: 

If you have no intention of listening to what the people you govern have to say – then stop asking them questions.

If North Attleboro citizens needed any further proof their local government doesn’t care what they think, they got it recently.  For the umpteenth time in the last two decades, the town’s Representative Town Meeting sent a clear message to voters.  That message said, “Stop trying to tell us what to do.  We are smarter than you.”

Last year selectmen put a nonbinding question on the ballot seeking to require voter approval to abolish town boards.  The townspeople then voted 1478-229 in favor, a majority of close to 84 percent.

Now, the concept was not a good idea.  The selectmen should have either sponsored the article when it was presented to them, or told the sponsors to advance it on their own.  The board members failed to do what they were elected to do – provide leadership.  Instead, they asked yet another meaningless and toothless non-binding question on the ballot.

But they did ask.  And they got an answer.  They were very careful to make sure that answer could be ignored.  They simply allowed frustrated citizens to vent their feelings, get it off their chests, and then go back to complaining and lamenting the fact they can’t seem to change anything.

The RTM was under no legal obligation to support the ballot initiative.  They had a legitimate argument that it undercut the foundation of the current form of government – shaky as that foundation may be.  Their vote to defeat it was actually quite understandable.

But the attitude they took in doing it was demeaning and insulting to the citizens of North Attleboro.  And don’t think for a second that was accidental.

People in North, your RTM government just doesn’t seem to like you.  It considers you an obstacle.  You are something to be manipulated, managed, and ignored when it suits their purpose. 

They are the parent, you are the children.  They know best.  Now go back outside and play, and let the adults make the decisions.

When debating the approved referendum question, RTM members seemed more concerned with their authority being questioned than if the proposal was good for the town.  Quotes from RTM members included “If you vote for this, our fellow RTM members, you give your authority away”, “Don’t be pushed around, vote no”, and the interesting “This was a nitwit question on the ballot and this is a nitwit article”.

The vast majority of RTM members were elected with far, far fewer than the 1478 votes the ballot question they ridiculed received.  It makes you wonder – if 84 percent of those voting passed a “nitwit” article, would that label then also apply to the RTM members they chose at the same election?

To be fair, there were RTM members who defended the public’s right to have their votes taken seriously.  One member warned that continuing to ignore clear requests from the voters would be going “down a slippery slope”.

RTM members are secure in their positions.  The majority of them run without opposition.  They believe they should tell the voters what to do, and not the other way around.

RTM does not work in North Attleboro.  It is too big, too powerful, and too isolated.  It is more of a private club than a public institution.

There is nothing new here.  North’s RTM has many good people working within it, but they are trapped in a bad system.  This has been going on for a long time, and no doubt will continue unchanged for the foreseeable future.

Because that’s the way the political establishment in North Attleboro wants it.  They don’t let anyone – particularly the voters – get in their way.  And while you all may be sick and tired of hearing this, that doesn’t make it one bit less true. 

North Attleboro’s government won’t change because the system and the people running it won’t allow it.  And if you really believe that doesn’t discourage people from voting, then I have this swampland I’d like to discuss selling you…

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime area town official.  He can be emailed at aninsidelook@aol.com and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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