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David Scribner
The Annual Town Meeting in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on May 5, 2019, during a vote on a proposed ban on single-use plastic bottles.

It’s Not That Simple: Can Annual Town Meeting be improved?

By Monday, Aug 5, 2019 Viewpoints 12

Have you ever read or heard about a problem facing the town and wondered why the elected boards don’t just fix it? The solution might seem obvious. Usually, It’s Not That Simple.If the solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems.

In this column, and on our WSBS radio program, we explore the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information that explains why It’s Not That Simple. Listen to the most recent program here.

We will do our best to steer clear of opinion and to just point out the issues that make the problems more complex than they might appear.

Although we both serve on elected town boards, we are not speaking for those boards or for the town in any capacity. We are only representing ourselves on the radio show and in this column.

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The cover of Charles Taylor’s ‘History of Great Barrington.’

Great Barrington’s first-ever Town Meeting was held at 4 p.m., July 22, 1761. It was a Wednesday. General Joseph Dwight had notified every eligible voter of the meeting. The assembled voters elected a moderator, Gen. Dwight, and picked a location for the de facto Town Hall, the home of William Ingersoll. What they did not do was elect legislators.

Towns in New England are islands of hyper-democracy. We don’t elect people to make spending decisions, pass laws, and create zoning as we do at the state and federal levels of government. We keep that power in the hands of each individual voter. The Selectboard doesn’t set the budget, appropriate money, or tell you not to sell water in plastic bottles. Those decisions are in the hands of the citizens and that power is exercised at the Annual Town Meeting (ATM).

That first Town Meeting was probably a quick one with a population of about 500 and only the adult men speaking and voting. The second town meeting was three and a half weeks later. It wasn’t until the third Town Meeting that Great Barrington passed its first budget, with four line items.

Now, 258 years later, as many as 400 diverse citizens are deliberating and voting on procedural moves mandated by state law, three multimillion dollar budgets (operating, capital, and school district), a dozen or so zoning changes, community preservation grants, citizen petitions, and much more. The Moderator has the delicate job of moving the meeting along while at the same time allowing citizens to present their ideas and be heard. That can be a daunting task. This year it took an hour to discuss one item, and in 4 hours we only got through half of the warrant before voters decided, by a majority vote, to continue the meeting to another night. 

We invited Town Moderator Michael Wise to our show to talk about Town Meeting, to explore some of the complaints, and to discuss the pros and cons of possible changes that might make Town Meeting more inclusive and productive 

The first question to ask is why so few people attend (usually about 8 percent of eligible voters)? Is it apathy, inability to get there and other barriers to participation, or a feeling that it just doesn’t matter? If it were a different day of the week, a different time, a different location, or a shorter meeting, would attendance increase? Would restructuring the way ATM is conducted help encourage participation?  

There are definitely barriers to participation and they don’t impact us all equally. We meet at the high school, completely inaccessible without a car and no public transportation is provided to or from the meeting. We meet at 6 p.m., a difficult time for parents with young children and impossible for people who work second shift. Child care is provided, but is it reasonable to expect parents to leave their children in a gym until 10 or 11 p.m.? There’s no provision for people with vision, hearing or severe mobility issues.

Town Moderator Michael Wise opens the 2019 Great Barrington Annual Town Meeting. Photo: David Scribner

There are any number of obvious changes that can be made that would make it easier for some to participate. We could run busses to and from the meeting, make more accommodations for physical disabilities, change the time or hold the meeting on a weekend. But all of those changes cost money and some, while making it easier for one group to attend, may exclude another. There is no time or location that will work for everyone. 

Should we do anything at all? We could just leave it the way it is and not overthink it, as one caller to the show suggested. It’s worked just fine for many years. But has it? And for whom? The decision to keep the meeting the way it is is not a neutral decision. Is it fair to vote on a school budget at a meeting that is more difficult for parents of school age children to attend than childless people? Is it fair to vote on funding for public transportation at a meeting that requires a car to attend?  

One possible change would be to a Representative Town Meeting in which voters elect delegates to Town Meeting and those delegates are the only ones allowed to vote. That way everyone is represented. Presumably those delegates would be people who could attend and participate and they would be prepared in advance. The town of Lee does this. However this limits rather than increases participation, and it still excludes the same people who can’t attend now. It also seems unlikely that GB voters will voluntarily give up their vote, and in any case, that would mean the end of our hyper-democracy.

Another option is to move the meeting somewhere in the downtown so more people without cars could attend. In the past ATM was held at the Mahaiwe Theater, but it proved to be problematic despite the fact that a large portion of the population could walk to it. The theater aisles are narrow and cramped making secret ballot voting difficult. There is nowhere else in the downtown that could accommodate the crowd associated with ATM.

Using a remote, additional location, like Town Hall or the Senior Center, has also been suggested. A live audio and video hookup for those who can’t travel to the high school and an assistant moderator would definitely be possible. People could speak from the remote location and participate as if they were in the same room. 

Why require people to come to a meeting at all? There must be secure technology that would allow people to watch the meeting at home and vote remotely. While that may be possible, it may not be legal yet. It also doesn’t allow voters at home to participate in the deliberation, just in the voting. Further, part of the purpose of Town Meeting has always been to bring neighbors together to work out solutions to issues facing the town. All one has to do is read the “comments” section, possibly to this very column, to see the added value in civil discourse when we are all in the same room. 

Are shorter meetings the answer? Some towns give out handheld devices so voters can vote from their seats, allowing for immediate results of secret ballots, but eliminating the breaks in tension, the social interaction, and the lower back relieving stretches when we vote. The devices also cost money.  

Maybe the voters want shorter meetings, but the voters at the last Town Meeting passed a citizen’s petition eliminating the time-saving motion of calling the question. Clearly a shorter meeting isn’t the only consideration. 

Other suggestions have been to split the meeting into two different meetings, handling the budget items at the first meeting and taking up zoning and other issues at a second meeting, a day, a week or even months later. Having a planned “special” Town Meeting later in the year would also allow the Town Manager and Selectboard to come back to the voters more easily for unanticipated issues. Shorter meetings are easier to accommodate with childcare and voters are less fatigued. On the other hand, if the transportation issue isn’t resolved, two meetings doubles the challenge. Finally, would people attend two meetings? Most voters don’t even attend one.

Another complaint we hear is that the meeting moves too quickly to understand the issue before voting. Many people who do show up are hearing about issues for the first time. Can we make it easier to be better prepared? We discussed this on the show.

Massachusetts law and Town practice provide many ways for citizens to get informed. No item on the warrant is coming up for the first time at Town Meeting and almost everything town government does is done in public. Throughout the year, there are dozens of committee meetings and public hearings associated with items on the warrant. Those meetings are recorded (either through video or official minutes) and their contents are made available to the public in the press and on the town’s website. The printed warrant itself is available on line and in the libraries in advance of the meeting. And any citizen can call town hall or any Selectboard, Planning Board, or Finance Committee member to discuss any item in advance of the meeting. It has never been easier to be informed, but maybe we can do better. 

Several people have suggested a meeting where issues are explained and debated, with voting taking place at a second meeting or in the town elections a week later. We tried the information-only meeting, called Mini-Town Meeting, for several years. Postcards were sent to every voter and fewer than a dozen people showed up. As for voting at the ballot box, sometimes the results of one vote at Town Meeting require changes to subsequent votes. That flexibility isn’t possible in a polling place.

At Town Meeting the town administration does explain every article in as much detail as possible given the time constraints. Perhaps if the town conducted two separate meetings warrant articles could be discussed in more detail without the worry of running late into the night. Judging from this years’ two-day ATM, taking more time explaining the warrant articles can be effective in communicating the details of every item.

All of these ideas have their pros and cons. Not surprisingly, It’s Not That Simple. There are certainly other ideas, too, that could increase attendance and make Town Meeting more efficient. What are your suggestions? 

Town Moderator Michael Wise will organize a forum this fall to discuss the Annual Town Meeting format, to seek ideas and consider changes, or possibly to just leave it alone. Please stay tuned to the program for a date.

As always, we would love to hear your perspectives on this and any of the other topics we have covered. Please write us at NotThatSimple528@gmail.com or leave a comment below and we will be happy to continue the discussion.

Our next show on WSBS will be Friday, August 16th at 9:05 a.m.