Keep Town Meeting, but it is time to improve it: From Clint on 6/2009

The traditional Acton Town Meeting can be greatly improved by using new technology presently available. There are serious drawbacks to the present Town Meeting, but every one of them can be addressed and improved.

First, the good news. Town Meeting has served Acton well for more than two hundred years. It has allowed Acton to build tone of the best public school systems in Massachusetts. It has allowed Acton to control its development well enough to keep it as a great place to live. For these reasons, while we listen to calls for change, we need to heed those calls to improve Town Meeting, but we need to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

More good news: the April 9th Town Meeting of 2009 was well run with professionally prepared presentations all of which were computer based, and all of which had significant backup documents with computer access. In particular, the attendees would undoubtedly agree that Don Mackenzie is a truly gifted moderator, and his dry humor is arguably almost reason enough to attend Town Meetings.

The greatest complaint about Town Meeting is that information is not available beforehand, and so Actonians are asked to vote on items they know little about. For example, the town budget handout was 66 pages of tiny print that can not possibly be digested before the vote. The school committee handout is done in the same way, but since there are two school budgets, it is twice as large. But the lack of availability of information could be said of all 45 Warrant items. Most Town Meeting attendees see the handouts for the first time at Town Meeting. This does not need to be.

This greatest complaint can be overcome by simply making all the documents available on the Town website to any Acton voter. This is easy to do via the Docushare facility now in place. All the slides and presentations, as well as all of the backup documents, could be made available in this way. If this were done, then interested citizens could have the chance to be fully prepared before the Town Meeting

A second major complaint about Town Meeting is that it is not a place that allows debate. This is true as there are practical limits to holding debates in a typical town meeting group of several hundred. There are four microphones where people stand in line and await their turn to speak. They are allowed a question or two, but this is by no means a debate, but rather simply an information exchange.

This second complaint is being addressed now with the new Acton Forum website that was established precisely for this reason. Here longer term discussions can be held via email and articles. For example, the subject of taxes for seniors can be debated at Acton Forum, but can not be even raised at Town Meeting. Acton Forum for long term discussions will facilitate the Town Meeting by allowing all true debate items to be discussed.

A third major complaint about Town Meeting is the late hours that make it difficult for seniors to attend and remain for the late votes. This leads to a related but generally unproven complaint that this may be done in part to prevent seniors from voting on some spending issues. In practical terms there are too many items to be discussed and voted on and so the meeting runs for two days into the late morning. The April 9th meeting lasted ten total hours.

This third complaint can be easily addressed by holding more town meetings, perhaps four a year at three hours each instead of one that is ten hours long. The meeting would then be limited to three hours maximum. In addition, the Town Meeting could then be scheduled such that citizens would know precisely at what time each warrant item vote would be held.

There is a danger with replacing Town Meeting with a representative form of government. Elected representatives in Massachusetts have a history of ignoring the will of their electorates. As an example, in our district the voters vowed overwhelmingly for the income tax roll back and our representatives consistently voted the other way. The same can be expected if Acton replaces the votes of the people with votes of representatives.

As time goes on Acton Forum plans to add to this discussion. In particular, if readers have any specific information they wish to share, please email the Forum.