Town leaders don't understand role of Town Meeting

Acton's town leadership does not understand the role or function of Town Meeting in our local government. This was evident at the recent Town Meeting on June 3, 2013 to expand regionalization.

In a series of upcoming articles, I will be delving into this Meeting to explain what went wrong and why our process is broken. I hope to help future town leaders recognize why this needs to be fixed. The current and recent crop of town leaders already knows about the problem and has repeatedly declined to fix it. To them, Town Meeting works just fine, thank you very much.

As a brief introduction, let me explain why we have Town Meeting.

We elect leaders to the Board of Selectmen or the School Committee to oversee the day-to-day operations of our local government. These are volunteer positions but they require a lot of time. The legislative body for the town is Town Meeting and that's where budgets and long-term decisions are made or approved.

Town leaders naturally would want their decisions to be endorsed by Town Meeting. They work hard to craft a budget: they'd like to see Town Meeting approve it. They form a committee to expand our regional schools: they'd like to see Town Meeting endorse it's recommendation.

Town Meeting is made up of Acton residents who register to vote. Anyone can show up and vote at Town Meeting (TM). But most people do not follow the issues closely. So it is absolutely imperative and essential that these TM voters be educated before asking them to vote on any controversial issue.

This is the crux of the problem. Whose job is it to educate these voters? I believe it is the job and responsibility of everyone, but especially our town leaders. It should be their number one priority. If this objective is not achieved each and every time, on each and every vote, then the results are tainted.

If it isn't the job of town leadership to ensure that TM is fair, then whose job would it be? There is no one else who can do it. Town leaders are the ones who setup most of the rules and who interpret things like our town Charter and By-laws. If the leadership is OK with a broken TM system because it serves their purposes, then it will stay broken. That's where we are in Acton now.

If I had to guess, I'd suggest that our leaders believe that residents have a duty to educate themselves. After all, all of the town committee meetings are open and they are broadcast. If someone attends or watches several School Committee meetings, they will be reasonably up to speed on regionalization (for example). But this would be incorrect. Unless you are actively volunteering, it is unrealistic to assume you can be up-to-speed on all the issues that are brought up at Town Meeting. So, for example, a fair and balanced presentation would help a School Committee member decide on whether or not to support a town budget amendment, because their knowledge base is with the schools, not the town. And, of course, we all know that in reality, very few outsiders attend these open meetings. But perhaps this helps our town leaders sleep better at night, knowing they can blame the town's dysfunction on others.

Town Meeting has been setup to help our town leaders pass their proposals. The information given to TM voters is biased, incomplete, and inaccurate, and the town leadership couldn't care less. All they seem to care about is winning, and they win 99% of the time, so the system is working fine for them. (It's not so great for those who oppose what they are doing.)

If Acton town leaders wanted to have a fair and honest TM system that produced good results, there are two ways that they could make sure that voters are educated and can make the right decision. The "right" decision is not the one that necessarily endorses what leadership has proposed, but instead is the decision reached by a group of voters who have been educated and can then use the democratic process and vote. If you trust in democracy, and the voters are educated and unbiased, then you can trust in the outcome with the majority ruling.

One way is for each town leader who speaks to make 100% sure that their information is balanced and objective. This is extremely hard to do, and I'd say it would be impossible to expect. Even if every leader made this their goal, there would be bias that would creep into their presentation, how they answered questions, etc.

An example that occurred at the recent TM: Dennis Bruce, the local School Commitee Chair, made the presentation for the School Committee which endorsed expanding the regional agreement. In his presentation, he correctly pointed out that in both towns, all three School Committees had voted to endorse full regionalization, and both Boards of Selectmen had done the same.

But what about the Finance Committee? They are the other major town board. I don't know about Boxborough, but the Acton Finance Committee voted to not recommend expanded regionalization. This was left out of Mr. Bruce's presentation and it was done on purpose. That is an example of a biased presentation where Mr. Bruce's function (in his mind) was to win the vote that night, not to present information in a fair and unbiased way. By choosing to ignore the Finance Committee's decision, he presented incomplete and misleading information to voters. Had the Finance Committee voted to recommend, I'm sure that decision would have been mentioned.

Mr. Bruce probably took a cue from the school's secretary who sent out an email to her town email list the day before. In it, she did the same thing: she talked about how the proposal was endorsed by two of the boards in both towns but neglected to mention that the third major board had voted against it.

So asking town leaders to work all year to achieve a goal, and then go to Town Meeting and put on their "unbiased, fair, and balanced" hat is probably unrealistic.

So we are left with the only other way to achieve fairness and balance, and that is to make sure that both sides of an issue are presented fairly, and that is not being done in Acton. Not even close.

This will be the subject of the next article. Stay tuned.

PART TWO, Town Meeting out of Balance--on purpose:

PART THREE, Misinformation at Town Meeting:

PART FOUR, New Info Bombshell:

PART FIVE, Conflict of interest taints Board of Selectmen endorsement of regionalization:

PART SIX: Our first fair Town Meeting:

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