Town Meetings: Are they outdated?
As dozens of Maine and New Hampshire communities convert their centuries-old tradition of open town meeting to a referendum ballot vote due to lagging attendance and failure to meet quorums, what kind of future do Bay State town meetings have with many towns struggling with the same issues?
Of the 351 communities in the state, 50 are cities and 301 are towns.
In those 301 towns, 264 communities hold open town meetings. They are traditionally held at a school or town hall, where prepared warrant articles are presented and town residents are allowed to attend the meeting. Residents have the power to voice their opinions on a warrant article or ask questions on how their tax money is being sent and why.
In the Fall RIver area, Somerset, Swansea, Westport and Freetown each have open town meetings. Thirty-seven other Bay State communities, generally the larger towns, conduct their town business via representative town meetings, where residents elect town meeting members that vote on their behalf at town meetings. Residents can still attend, but someone else does the voting for them. Dartmouth, Fairhaven and Seekonk use the representative form of town meeting.
Massachusetts Moderators Association President Betsey Anderson said the open town meeting format has worked in the state since 1633, but that doesn’t mean that improvements don’t need to be made.
Anderson said attendance at a town meeting is based on a number of things, usually the variety of hot button items up for vote and the availability of people to take the time to attend and vote. One of the reasons why towns are converting to a referendum vote is because it allows people to vote on their town’s issues whenever they please and are not restricted to a weekday night, a convenience that calls out to people like a drive-thru or delivery service. Anderson said that while referendum votes are more convenient, it takes the resident out of the actual process of voicing concerns on a particular article or line item.
“Middleboro was a great example of how the town meeting can be successful when many residents came out to vote on the casino issue,” said Anderson. “If people care enough about their town and the issues, then they need to be there. This is a classic, New England town tradition.”
Anderson said many of the Massachusetts towns have lowered quorum numbers over the years in order to continue to have the numbers they need. Some, like Somerset, don’t have quorums at all.
While Swansea’s regular town elections draw an average about 27 percent of the 10,500 registered voters in town over the last five years. When it comes to participation in a town meeting, Swansea is lucky to get 2 percent. The town has a quorum of 75, and never has a problem of reaching that, but the overall attendance numbers have dropped over the years.
“Many people don’t go to town meetings because they feel that they elect the people that are running the departments and creating the budgets and that those people are going to do the talking for them,” said Swansea Town Clerk Susan Taveira.
But residents ultimately decide whether a budget, worth tens of millions of dollars, will pass, not department managers or a town administrator. They can only work the numbers and present the budget for the residents to decide on.
Swansea Town Moderator Paul Burke, who has held the post for 13 years, said attendence depends on in keeping the residents, especially the younger ones, interested enough to show up and vote. A way to educate younger children in town meeting would be a start, he said.
“I remember when I was young, I knew nothing about town meetings until I was in my 20’s, and that’s kind of sad. And the same holds true today,” Burke said. “Young people have so many more options these days, but we have to find ways to get them involved because they are the future of town meetings in this town. People need to have their say.”
Burke said implementation of proposition 2 1/2, which limits the amount the towns can increase the tax burden on residents, affected attendence. And now that many meetings are televised, people find more ways to avoid attending meetings. But only their television sets will hear them complain if something gets approval that they disagreed with.
Westport Selectwoman Veronica Beaulieu said she thinks one problem is that people are interested in knowing what is happening but don’t care to vote, which is where the television comes in handy for many.
“I’m not against having it on TV, and I know some people can’t get out,” she said. “But we might get a few more if people weren’t able to watch on TV.”
Even with attendance problems and needed improvements, most town officials said they felt eliminating town meeting would be too abrupt of a change to a form of town government. Town meeting has some advantages and has 375 years of tradition under its belt.
“Doing away with a town meeting would be like throwing a baby away with the bathwater. Town meeting can be a great process. Is it under attended, yes,” said Swansea Selectmen Chairman Kenneth Furtado. “If participation continues to get lower and lower, then it will be a lot easier to affect results of any given topic, which is very unfortunate. We need a cross section of the community to come out.”
Representative town meetings also have their own issues, especially when it comes to generating participation. In Dartmouth, which has about 22,000 registered voters, typically no more than 250 residents attend the meeting, according to moderator Steven Sharek. Though there are 390 town meetings representatives elected to represent the town, more than 100 of them don’t even show up. The 250 participants represent 1.1 percent of all voters. Sharek said the length of the meetings can also be a deterrent.
“If it’s dull and long, and people are allowed to pontificate, people are going to get bored and not come,” he said.
Sharek doesn’t have a set limit on how long he lets town meeting members talk on the issues but reminds speakers to keep their remarks brief.
“Even Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took only two minutes,” Sharek noted.
Fairhaven has a similarly low turnout. There are 425 representatives in the community with 10,400 registered voters, but Town Meeting usually attracts only 220 to 280, clerk Eileen M. Lowney said, good for about 2.4 percent.
Some Massachusetts communities have changed their town meeting times to weekends in hopes of increasing attendance numbers, but many of the changes carry their own problems. Seekonk has struggled with its Representative Town Meeting and has contemplated changing it.
For other communities that prefer the town meeting format, it’s about educating the residents to know what the town meeting is about, how they can vote, what the issues are and how the process works.
Lucia Casey, who has been Somerset’s town moderator for 15 years, has made education a priority. For the last six years, she has run annual classes prior to the town meetings to teach residents about articles, warrants, motions and what the meeting is about.
Casey said that like town meetings, not many people go to her educational sessions either. But she feels holding them for those few that do attend is invaluable. She said town meeting attendence is tied to education and awareness of what is going on in the town, something many people miss out on when they are running from one place to another in their busy lives.
“Many people move into small towns from cities and don’t understand this form of government and feel that on the big issues, that their single vote won’t affect anything,” said Casey. “It’s the same mentality many people have in the cities, just on a smaller scale. People have to be re-educated into what a town meeting is about and why they need to be there. It’s the most purest form of government there is.”
Somerset Selectmen Chairman William Meehan said credit should be given to the people who attend the meetings — about 5 percent of the 12,700 registered voters in the town. But he agreed that things must change and that the burden is on town officials to make the meetings more interesting to continue seeing people attend these meetings 10, 20, 30 or 100 years from now.
“Doing away with the town meeting would be a big mistake and make the process that much more difficult,” said Meehan. “Town meeting gives the average person a voice where they don’t normally have one. It allows them to have a say in how their government is run and how their money is spent. If you take away that, what would be left?”
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