Propoganda from the leadership

Let's pretend for a moment. Let's say the Selectmen (BOS) showed up on a Monday night for a hearing. Each of the five members had never been to a meeting before, or maybe had just watched a couple on TV. They were random Acton citizens picked out of the phone book (perhaps a virtual phone book.)

After taking their seats, the Town Manager would bring up various departments for funding. Each department would make their case for an increase in their budget, citing various reasons and statistics. We need more police officers, and they need a raise. We need more librarians and they need a raise. We need more firemen and they need a raise. After each presentation, the Manager asked the Selectmen if they had any questions, but no one ever did. After all, they were hearing everything for the first time and it all sounded very reasonable. If the Town Manager recommended it, he must have thought about it and he is the expert. And people need raises every year, because they do.

Each proposed department budget would be approved, often unanimously. Some Selectmen might abstain because they hadn't understood something, but with the general agreement of the Board in every case, why vote against something that you didn't really have a strong feeling against? Just go with the flow, right?

In order to pay for all these increases, taxes would of course have to be raised, otherwise the budget would not be balanced.

If you were a taxpayer watching this, would you feel like everything was working fine, or would you be upset?

Do you think that people with no background, experience, institutional knowledge, or understanding could fairly evaluate the individual budgets? Or is it reasonable for them to just take the word of the Town Manager for everything, and then become the responsible party by voting yes?

If that were true, then you wouldn't really need a Board of Selectmen, would you? They really perform no useful function in this make-believe scenario. In fact, they would be a disservice to democracy, because the responsible party (the Town Manager) would have a layer of protective bureaucracy around him or her. It would make more sense to make the Town Manager the CEO of the town and vote him or her out of office if things aren't going well. The Selectmen would be superfluous.

So let's come back to the real world. If you were a good Town Manager, your job would be to empower the Selectmen, recognizing the role they are supposed to play and making sure they play it properly. This would mean educating them about issues, giving them access to facts and to personnel, and framing questions properly so that meaningful decisions can be made. That would be your job. If you kept the BOS in the dark, you'd be doing a poor job and should be fired.

As far as I know the Board of Selectmen do a reasonable job of educating themselves and try to make good decisions.

But not so for Town Meeting. Town Meeting is a vital "check and balance" on the decision-making role of local government, specifically the BOS, but it has been badly treated by the actual BOS which has failed to empower it to make good decisions. Instead, the BOS treats it as a rubber-stamp body and makes sure that it doesn't have good information, isn't well educated, can't ask questions, and can't act independently. This means the BOS isn't doing their job properly. They need to empower Town Meeting, not make it ineffective.

We see the BOS' harmful conduct toward Town Meeting through their actions: Calling a Special Town Meeting in the middle of summer; refusing to present both sides of an important issue; and refusing to allow for meaningful questions or debate at Town Meeting. The BOS instead wants a rubber-stamp body to approve whatever it proposes.

I have a lot of questions about the proposal this Tuesday night, but I know that I won't be able to ask them and get straight answers in the one-question-per-person format or the two-minutes-per-speaker format. So as far as I am concerned, there is no reason to ask questions or make statements.

I also know that in this instance, there has been no public meeting with a public explanation of this proposal. And we can't have a "public meeting" at Town Meeting. The crowd is too large, the format is too unwieldy, and the rules are too strict.

But the main objection I have is that one-sided presentations are not adequate for an important body like Town Meeting. As in my example above, having a body with no experience and being spoon-fed one-sided information is not how good decisions are made. Yet that is what the BOS wants and expects of Town Meeting, and it will get its way if the citizens let it.

Until there is balance at Town Meeting, meaning that both sides of important, controversial issues are given equal time and weight to educate Town Meeting members prior to a vote, I urge people to show up and vote no on any controversial proposal. And I certainly urge a no vote whenever a Town Meeting is planned when many of our residents won't even be around to participate. Imagine an issue of deep importance to you being decided during the middle of your summer vacation. It would be like holding an important meeting on a Saturday night at 2 am. It just shouldn't be done, period.

The Special Town Meeting will be held this Tuesday night, 7 pm, at the High School auditorium.

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Comments

Town Meeting approves purchase

Despite a one-sided presentation, or perhaps because of it, Town Meeting members voted to support the Walker Realty land purchase, giving the Town of Acton authority to pay $1.8 million for five parcels located near the Route 2 (W) off-ramp. The land includes the parcel upon which Kennedy Greenhouse and Landscaping is located.

Several interesting questions and comments were made during the discussion, none of which could be explored during Town Meeting.

There was no opposing presentations against the purchase, although several speakers raised questions or concerns that were not addressed by the proponents.

Other speakers talked about investing in Acton's future, and protecting land from development and for future unknown uses. Where would Acton be if the town had not secured the land upon which Town Hall now sits?

The next step in Acton's land acquisition plan is to increase the Community Preservation Act (CPA) surcharge to 3%, so that Acton will have more money to buy land. That will be coming up, probably at our Spring Town Meeting.

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.