Acton Town Meeting tainted by special interests

In Acton, it has become conventional wisdom that the schools are supported by parents who move to town to give their kids a great education and thus are generally in favor of higher school spending.

These voters are somewhat balanced out by people who want to control rising property taxes. As our residents get older, some move away, others stay, but the "empty nesters" who remain are often concerned about our high property tax rate and want to see costs controlled.

Few Acton residents want to see the schools decline in any way, but there are legitimate differences of opinion about the role of property taxation for public schools and how much is enough. People on both sides of the issue are welcomed to attend Town Meeting, voice their opinion, and vote to approve or not approve what the town boards propose.

Our process is for staff to create budgets which are reviewed and modified by our town boards. This process takes several months. When done, the spending is presented to Town Meeting in warrant articles which are affirmed by a vote of Town Meeting. It is extremely rare for Town Meeting not to approve the budgets that have been recommended by the boards.

Most people assume that Town Meeting represents a somewhat random cross-section of voters and those who participate are not motivated by anything other than caring about the outcome as might a parent or taxpayer.

But is Town Meeting acting unbiasedly in our system? Are there significant conflicts of interest that would call into question the validity of Town Meeting itself?

The latest annual Town Meeting, held Monday and Tuesday, April 7-8, 2014, had just 373 registered voters on Monday and 430 on Tuesday. This is out of a total of 13,798 registered voters, or about 3% per night. With such low participation, there is a danger that "special interests" could organize and easily manipulate the outcome.

We believe this occured at Tuesday night's Town Meeting.

ACTON TOWN MEETING OF TUESDAY, APRIL 8, 2014

This year's school assessment vote at Town Meeting was most unusual because the spending proposal was opposed by the Board of Selectmen (BOS). This was also the first year of an expanded regional school district and many of the Selectmen thought the assessment was too high, and that some school spending should have been delayed at least a year until some of the kinks related to regionalization had been worked out. The BOS voted to "not recommend" the assessment. (Acton's Finance Committee was on the other side and recommended it.)

What no one perhaps realized is that a very high percentage of Town Meeting voters had a personal financial interest in the outcome of the school assessment vote and related warrant articles and wanted them to pass. And these were the school employees who live in Acton, who came out in large numbers, presumably to vote to approve higher school spending.

Acton Forum studied the voting population of Tuesday night's Town Meeting and researched how many of the voters were either employees or lived in the same household as employees (i.e., spouses) of the town or school. Out of 430 registered voters, 100 were school employees or spouses and 10 were municipal employees or spouses. The school employees or spouses comprised 23.26% of the total number of registered voters present. (The town's municipal employees represented 2.3% of the total voters.)

We only counted town or school employees who earned more than $1,000 in 2013, based on the gross wages reported to us by the entities. And any voter who was either employed by the town or school, or had a member of their immediate houshold so employed, was counted.

So what's wrong with so many school employees showing up to vote at Town Meeting?

ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF CONFLICTS OF INTEREST IN ACTON

When a member of a town board may be financially benefitted (or harmed) when acting in his or her official capacity, there is the assumption that he will recuse himself from discussing or voting on that matter. No such rule exists for Town Meeting.

Let's take the Board of Selectmen as an example. There are five members, so a member who participates and votes despite a conflict would represent 20% of the total vote of the board, and thus would exercise an undue influence on the results. Could members overlook their personal financial interests in order to vote impartially? Sure, but it is hard to do and the public would prefer that the process of making decisions does not involve those with direct conflicts of interest.

That same Board member attending Town Meeting is just one vote out of around 400, or 0.25%. Surely one voter is not going to have an undue influence at Town Meeting. Public participation might be more influential than their vote, and some speakers do disclose any conflict before speaking. But what if that person's conflict was multiplied by 100 other voters with the same conflict?

At Tuesday's Town Meeting, there were 100 school workers (or spouses) who voted on the school budget issues, who participated in the discussion, who "clapped loudly" when points were raised in their favor, and who most likely influenced non-conflicted voters into thinking that the Acton citizens supported higher school spending. How many voters realized that nearly 25% of the audience worked for the schools or had spouses who did?

These participants may not have broken any conflict-of-interest laws, but surely their mass attendance, seemingly coordinated or encouraged by some group, had the same effect as if one member of a town board voted on issues that directly affected his financial position. And in this instance, the collective influence of these school employees was actually greater (23%) than the influence that a single member of any town or school board would have relative to their vote on their committee (20% for BOS, around 10% for School Committee, and 12% for Finance Committee).

We are not suggesting that voters with conflicts cannot attend Town Meeting, although we do believe that individuals at Town Meeting should voluntarily recuse themselves from voting on matters that directly and disproportionally affect their financial interest.

But when groups of individuals with an obvious conflict-of-interest operate in concert, and when their collective vote could have a significant impact on Town Meeting decisions, then that should also cause just as much concern as when an individual board member does it.

MORE PARTICIPATION OR NEW SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT

Frankly, if future Town Meetings have 23% of voters employed by the schools, it is unlikely that any school budget items will ever be defeated. Only one-third of the remaining voters need to agree with the school employees for anything to pass, and parents who are highly motivated to support school spending will most likely provide that margin.

So there are two ways to fix this imbalance. First, we can hope that more voters without conflicts attend future Town Meetings. Acton has over 13,000 registered voters and just 3% of them went to this year's annual Town Meeting. If the average voter realized that "special interests" make a concerted effort to attend Town Meeting and are making decisions that may not reflect the will of ordinary citizens, they might make more of an effort to go.

But Acton's Town Meetings are so poorly run that you can't blame people for staying home. Town Meetings are usually one-sided rubber-stamp exercises in which a few dissidents question whatever the town leaders are proposing and then the proposals get passed. It is extremely rare for the town boards to present opposing viewpoints on financial matters, since they try to agree in advance on all the spending proposals through their Acton Leadership Group (ALG) process. This has helped to make Town Meeting redundant, which has certainly contributed to declining participation.

This year, when there was a public disagreement, going to Town Meeting was simply not on the agenda for many citizens. They've learned to stay home and can't tell in advance when they might need to show up.

If a random cross-section of Acton voters are not going to be attending Town Meeting, then the decisions made are invalid and we should move to another form of local government which will remove this undue influence on our public spending decisions.

A "representative Town Meeting" format offers some advantages and some disadvantages, but perhaps should be explored, especially if anyone elected would be subject to the same conflict-of-interest laws that apply to town or school boards.

Or maybe a city form of government would make more sense. Have professional managers deal with the specific budgets and voters can elect representatives who can set tax rates for services whose funding is not subject to manipulation by voters with hidden agendas.

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Comments

Who attends Town Meetings?

[This comment was posted under the wrong article. I have moved it here. -- AN]

Posted by doug williams
Health issues prevent me from attending town meetings but I am interested in who does attend and I do expect people who are directly impacted by an article to attend. Town employees who live in Acton should attend town meetings, by my logic. Since the town employees who live in Acton constitute 25% of Acton's registered voters then I would expect 25% of the town meeting attendees to be town employees who live in Acton. Not an issue!

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and is an Associate Publisher of Acton Forum.

Reply to Doug

Hi Doug,

Acton has 20,000 residents and over 13,000 registered voters. The town and school employ a total of about 1,600 individuals who make over $1,000 a year. Many of these individuals do not live in Acton. My guess is the majority live outside of Acton. So your assumption that 25% of the town's residents are employed by the town or schools is simply untrue.

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and is an Associate Publisher of Acton Forum.

Acton Poll Tax

Having had the opportunity to live in many cities across America, I have experienced the benefits and drawbacks of various election processes. While the Acton Town Meeting format initially sounds appealing, in practice it ‘s been the most archaic and undemocratic process that I’ve experienced. Scores of town friends tell a similar tale; they attend one town meeting, and are so discouraged that they never go back.

The best systems allow straight voting on an article or proposition. Ballot mailers provide a brief set of equally sized statements regarding the pros and cons of an issue. Even when dozens of articles are at stake, a well-informed voter can register their wishes within minutes.

Contrast that with our Acton Town Meeting format. Even if you know how you want to vote, you are forced to sit through two or more days of seemingly endless presentations. Each topic is followed up by numerous questions and comments from the audience. All told, you need to be prepared to spend between 8 to 10 hours or more, just to vote. That can be a tall task, especially if you have a family, or are responsible for other important matters. Requiring over 8 hours to vote is the time-equivalent of a poll tax. Only those who are able to afford the time are permitted to vote.

If you believe in Democracy, you want as many well-informed voters as possible. Our town meetings effectively stack the deck against any dissention. Voters are forced to pass through a gauntlet of presentations, and each article receives a lengthy and generous one-sided presentation in favor of its passage. Contrary views are almost always limited to a very short window with rigid time enforcement. This type of lopsided indoctrination prior to voting runs counter to obtaining a well-informed decision.

Disenfranchisement of voters sets up a system where major decisions are unduly influence by vocal special interests. To break the cycle, voters need to be heard. One simple approach to would be to allow voters to cast a paper ballot instead of voting by voice. If you want to vote quickly and leave, you may. If you’d like to spend hours hearing presentations or asking questions, that would be fine as well. Either way, you’d get a larger voter turnout, which leads to a more balanced and responsive government.

Great comments and idea

You are singing my song. If presentations were balanced, then Town Meeting members could listen to both sides and make a decision based on the best information available.

But many don't want to spend the time, so we could have a "pro" and "con" debate (much like they provide for ballot questions) that would be mailed to households prior to Town Meeting, and then voters could register and vote in advance without listening to the presentations if they had truly made up their minds. There is a danger that "new information" would not be available to those who voted in this manner.

Or maybe the "debate" could be recorded in advance and available "on demand" prior to TM, and then TM would be just to hear oral arguments from citizens and not presentations. Each controversial item would be given 1/2 hour for public comments (if there are that many).

Good food for thought.

Allen

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and is an Associate Publisher of Acton Forum.

On Conflicts of Interest...

"A municipal employee may not participate in any particular matter in which he or a member of his immediate family (parents, children, siblings, spouse, and spouse's parents, children, and siblings) has a financial interest. He also may not participate in any particular matter in which a prospective employer, or a business organization of which he is a director, officer, trustee, or employee has a financial interest. Participation includes discussing as well as voting on a matter, and delegating a matter to someone else."

The above from Summary of the Conflict of Interest Law for Municipal Employees