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PETER MOST: Saturday’s alright for meeting

When I chat with people about Town Meeting, as one does, it often comes up that having the meetings on weeknights makes it hard to attend.

If a wake is a party thrown in your honor on the one day they know you can’t attend, what is a town meeting on the evening, or two, that you are likely unable to attend? A Great Barrington tradition?

When I chat with people about town meeting, as one does, it often comes up that having the meetings on weeknights makes it hard to attend. For the younger generation, it might be child-care issues. For a slightly older generation, it might be that work starts early the next morning. For an even older group, it might be a reluctance to drive at night or, well, a desire not to be out late. Sometimes, it might be some combination of these reasons or others not listed here. While the precise basis may differ, the responses reflect that a reasonable portion of the electorate would like to participate in town meeting but will not/cannot attend on a weeknight.

Do not think for a minute that the following observed proper survey methodology, but when I have the “you would attend but for” discussion regarding weeknight town meetings with someone, I always also ask if holding the meeting on a Saturday morning rather than a Monday night would make a difference. Uniformly, the answer is “yes.” This is not to say that convening the meetings on Saturdays would be a perfect solution. It would no doubt enable some to come and disable others. There are myriad things we do on Saturdays in May—little league games; graduations; chores; hiking/biking; working; and, no doubt for some, anything but going to yet another meeting, just to name a few. Still, shouldn’t we at least discuss whether meetings on Saturdays would accommodate a larger number of folks than on Mondays?

In 2023, our friends in Becket, Monterey, and Sandisfield held their town meetings on Saturdays, and our friends in Egremont hold their town meetings on Saturdays when they want to kill regional school district consolidation. Each of these towns has a far smaller population than Great Barrington, but there is no obvious nexus between the size of a town and its ability to convene a weekend town meeting. Perhaps it is that the smaller towns want to facilitate greater attendance and know that holding the meetings on Saturdays achieves that goal. So isn’t it reasonable to ask if Great Barrington should evaluate whether holding town meeting on a Saturday would increase residents’ participation?

Across the nation, there has been an effort to increase voter participation. Vote-by-mail and early voting legislation seek to enable greater access to polling, as holding elections on a single workday makes voting challenging for some. We are also aware that, across the nation, there have been efforts to repress voter participation. No suggestion here that holding town meeting on Mondays is a disguised voter-suppression effort; rather, the suggestion is that holding the meetings on Saturdays could possibly increase participation, just as vote-by-mail has increased voter turnout where implemented.

It is of course true that the but-that’s-not-how-we-do-its will oppose consideration of Saturday town meetings, no matter the potential benefits. Perhaps it is worth noting then that Great Barrington’s second town meeting was held on Saturday, August 22, 1761, which should take the wind out of the but-that’s-not-how-we-do-its’ sails. All I am asking is that we go back to doing town meetings the way our ancestors intended. It is also no doubt true that the but-that’s-not-how-we-do-its long ago opposed traffic signals and recently opposed the traffic circle. You really can’t argue with the but-that’s-not-how-we-do-its, although Great Barrington did of course hold town meeting on Saturdays. If it were up to the but-that’s-not-how-we-do-its, our roads would have remained unpaved. So, let’s be less concerned with how things were done and consider if modern tweaks offer improvements.

It would not be possible to list all of the things that we appreciate about New England generally and Great Barrington in particular, but it is possible to note that the town meeting tradition would surely be near top of the list. If you love democracy, seeing it practiced in its purest form is (mostly) a joy.

My favorite town meeting moment came during one of the COVID outdoor meetings when a citizen walked to the microphone to state that our park equipment needed an upgrade. Following little discussion, the town voted to approve a nice expenditure to replace swings and the like. I was amused by the fact that folks on the Selectboard and Finance Committee had spent weeks crafting the budget and determining how much “free cash” should remain in the town’s coffers, the results of which detailed work were slightly undone in fewer than five minutes. That is direct democracy, a thing of beauty.

It is merely supposition based on various conversations that holding town meeting on Saturdays will facilitate participation. The question is, will it? Not that an internet poll is scientific, but an internet survey is at least slightly more useful than random conversations. Let’s give it a shot. Here is a link to a one question Survey Monkey poll (the question being, “Would you prefer to have town meetings held on Saturdays?”). Please vote early but not often. Results will be reported in this space soon.

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