The benign dictatorship

The recent evidence that Acton residents are getting disengaged from local politics is piling up. And while there are probably several causes for this, I can think of a few that our town leaders should address.

Unfortunately, many of them don't see that there is a problem. Having uncontested races for major town elections, getting 4% voter turnout at elections, and having less than a couple hundred voters making decisions at Town Meeting are not urgent warning signs to them, but instead are evidence that things are going well!

Why? Because if they weren't going well, people would theoretically be upset and turn out. That is one explanation, one that dovetails nicely with their theory that they have all the answers and citizens really have no place in the political process, except to rubber-stamp what the town leaders have already decided.

But there is another explanation, which is that voters have been given the clear signal time and time again that their active involvement is not necessary to make decisions. Why go to endless meetings of committees when others will go for you, work hard all year, and then get nearly unanimous approval for whatever is being proposed during the Town Meeting?

Our non-partisan town elections have become partisan; our state representatives get re-elected year after year with token opposition; and they can do this because of the support of local unions which contribute tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of volunteer hours to keep the status quo.

There is a danger in democracy when you have effectively one-party rule and the rules are setup to give almost total control to that one party. That is how it is in Massachusetts and in Acton. The majority of voters don't seem upset by these obvious warning signs because they may generally support where the town is going...until they don't. And then, when they become one of the dissenters, they will understand that this system is corrupt.

There are important policy decisions that are affirmed at Town Meeting, things like raising taxes. But if nobody shows up because Town Meeting has been eviscerated, then the leaders get to do whatever they want.

A big part of the problem is that debate on spending has been eliminated. If you watch Night One of town meeting, there are few if any speakers opposed to the spending plans. Why? Because the town boards (through the "ALG process") all agree to the spending plans in advance, and then present their famous "united front" to Town Meeting. It is impossible for any individual to get up and in two minutes convince a majority of voters to amend a spending plan that the boards have spent "all year, working hard" to put together. Therefore they all get passed intact and without serious opposition.

Town Meeting has been ruined. Getting less than 200 votes to decide issues in town is disappointing, but the people to blame sit on the stage at Town Meeting or stand at the podium.

When Town Meeting becomes a joke, the "farm team" of town citizens also disappears. Many people get involved in town government when they start going to Town Meeting. Town Meeting's demise means that a broad cross-section of Acton citizens will not be participating in any local town government activities.

Those that do try to speak at Town Meeting are often belittled, cut off, and humiliated. This mini-power-trip that Moderator Don Mackenzie so enjoys is probably another cause of Town Meeting's demise. He and the other town leaders do not want opposition or debate--they want you to sit in the audience, vote yes, and laugh at his stale jokes.

Mackenzie has instituted changes that he explained would help Town Meeting be more efficient, like two-minute speaking limits. If Town Meeting took two nights instead of three, perhaps he thought that more people would show up. That theory has been shot down by recent evidence.

Instead, the strict speaking and question limits and his heavy-handed control over debate, plus the leadership decision to continue to allow one-sided presentations, has left Town Meeting effectively unable to debate anything fairly. Everything that is presented is one-sided. For the evidence of this, just watch the Pay As You Throw "debate" on Night Two of Town Meeting. (See, around 1:47 TIME LEFT in the meeting.)

The 14-minute BOS presentation had no rebuttal, even though many have disputed the facts and figures presented. Rebutters have neither the time nor ability to respond with a two-minute speaking limit.

But presenter Katie Green was not so burdened. After her presentation, she was able to respond several times to speakers who asked questions or who disagreed with her position. Green got a second bite of the apple at 1:15 left, and a third bite at 1:12:30. She got a fourth bite at 59:10 remaining. She got her fifth bite which finished off the apple at 52:45 remaining.

I won't add it all up, but I'll bet Katie spoke for as much or more time than the entire "con" speakers combined. This lack of balance should be troubling for anybody who believes in local Town Meeting, because I believe it is one of the root causes for lack of turnout.

At the start of the meeting, Mackenzie suggested a 45-minute time limit on debate, which was passed by Town Meeting on a voice vote. This indicates to me that many voters came to the meeting already having made up their minds. With such a small turnout of voters, it probably didn't matter that opponents were not given equal time, but this is indicative of the problem. Having unbalanced presentations means that opponents have little chance of changing the recommended outcomes, so why bother to try?

So the problem as I see it is that the role of Town Meeting has been changed from a deliberative body that hears and decides issues, to a rubber-stamp body that is unable to make contrary decisions because of the one-sided format. As people realize what has happened, they don't bother to go. They aren't needed or wanted.

In a democracy, one of the goals is to engage citizens. If citizens lose interest and drop out, then democracy doesn't work as intended. And then you end up with a benign dictatorship, like we now have in Acton.

The goal of Town Meeting should not be speed, it should be information and debate. Citizens should be asked to play a vital role, to come to Town Meeting to provide a needed check-and-balance on the role and conclusions reached by our town volunteers and staff. This can be accomplished through policies that promote balanced debate, and for major decisions to be decided by Town Meeting and not in advance by the town boards. That no longer happens in Acton.

One day, if it hasn't happened yet, there will be some proposal with which you disagree, and you might expect to mount a spirited discussion at Town Meeting to have the issue thoroughly discussed, debated, and decided by the citizens. That opportunity is now lost.

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Time for Representative Town Government

It has been amply evident that Acton outgrew Open Town Meeting and should move to adopt Representative Town Meeting format. The difference and the requirements are outlined at:

The palpable climate of single issue advocacy undermines a balanced perspective for all issues and the greater good of the Town. An ill-informed patrticipation on other matters becomes stifling, and decisions too often made on emotional presentations or presentations that ignore crucial facts. Imperial behavior by a moderator can distort the processes of Open Town Meeting, and has. The "entertainment" factor runs high among expectations of participants ... in contrast to the crucial steady-as-you-go Omatter of orderly government.

Resprentatives are elected on a regular basis by small group of neighbors, and have those constituents needs and issues in mind. Representatives must take the time to be as fully informed as possible, on all issues, representative are informed about the budgeting and other approval processes, and can move the meeting forward efficiently without shortcutting needed debate.

I grew up in a Massachusetts town that had adopted Representative Town Meeting year easlier. My Dad was an elected member for several years. He worked had to be informed on all issues and to accurately portray the balanced concerns of the neightbors. It has served that town very well, in contrast to the increasingly disfunctional Open Town Meeting in Acton. A list of the Massachusetts towns with both forms of town meeting is found on Wikipedia by Googling this topic.

We have (sadly) outgrown the charming form of town governance that was quaintly appropriate when my young family moved here 45 years ago. It is time to join the more enlighted communities that saw the need and moved to Representative Town Meeting years ago.

Ralph E Abbott


While I think that most of your columns settle in somewhere between ludicrous and patently offensive, this one hits the nail on the head.

Our Town Meeting, which has such a nice ring to it, is in reality the polar opposite of any kind of democratic process for town governance. While it might have worked when there were 200 town citizens from five farms, in this day and age it is as anachronistic as the requirement to own property to vote. Tthe rest of the planet works on figuring out how to make participation in the democratic process easier and more widespread, while we maintain a system that at best excludes 95% or more of its citizens. I gave up on it for exactly the reasons you describe, and likewise gave up on wanting to participate on any committees. When the game is rigged, there is no point in playing.

And I usually support most of the decisions! I can only imagine how frustrating and alienating it must be for those of us, like you, who do not. I may not agree with you most (well almost all) of the time, but I respect your right to voice your opinion, and I am frankly embarrassed to live in a community that is so willing to accept the lack of any semblance of a fair and participatory governance. Shame on us!