Point of Order
In defense of Open Town Meeting
Wakefield‘s Regular Town Meeting opens on Monday, Nov. 18, and it seems like a good time to reflect on the institution of Open Town Meeting.
While some towns have gone to a watered-down “Representative Town Meeting,” with voting members elected from each precinct, Open Town Meeting remains a New England tradition. It has been called the purest form of democracy because it’s open to every registered voter, who is welcome speak, vote and even propose amendments to any measure on the warrant.
There’s only one catch: You have to actually show up.
In an October 17, 2013 op-ed column in The Boston Globe, Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economist and director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, argues that requiring people to show up at Town Meeting in order to hear arguments, voice opinions and vote on how their town is run is just too much to ask of busy people for whom “time is a scarce and precious commodity.”
Glaeser disdains the “ponderous speeches” by “crabgrass Ciceros” at open town meetings. To him, having to sit and listen to the tedious rants of the commoners is tantamount to the old “poll tax,” levied on adults as a requisite of voting.
“The three or more hours demanded by many town meetings is just as unfair to the time-strapped as a poll tax is to the cash-strapped,” he argues. “What about single parents, or couples who have several children under 6?”
Oh, I don’t know. Somehow they all managed to get to Town Meeting when it came time to vote on a new Galvin Middle School. And I’m sure grandma enjoyed the extra time minding the little darlings.
Glaeser dismisses the idea that attendance at Town Meeting helps to ensure informed voting.
“In the Internet age,” he argues, “we can surely do better than simply requiring people to sit and listen.”
Oh, perish the thought.
“We can allow anyone who has relevant statements, data, or links to post them on a town meeting website,” Glaeser insists, “which will give voters far easier access to information.”
Has Mr. Glaeser ever visited those bastions of civility that are online web forums?
Glaeser’s sense of noblesse oblige does allow him to grant that “town meetings should continue to provide a forum where ordinary people air their concerns.” Still, he maintains, “we should provide alternative means for citizens to vote on local matters.”
He, of course, has come up with the solution that has for so long eluded the rest of us.
“Imagine if residents were allowed to deposit ballots the day before or after the meeting,” he suggests. “People could still rail against injustices, and urge proposals on selectmen, but their neighbors wouldn’t be disenfranchised just because they have other commitments that they can’t ignore.”
Great. That would eliminate Town Meetings packed with one-issue special interest people forced to at least pretend to listen to opposing arguments. Instead, you could have a box stuffed with the ballots of those cajoled into voting by one annoying, activist neighbor.
Besides, don’t we already have days when people are allowed to deposit ballots? They’re called “elections” and they tend to cost the town more than your average Town Meeting. Having people vote by ballot on each item of a 35-article Town Meeting warrant sounds like a positively magical idea.
Open Town Meeting has its flaws, to be sure. And say what you will about the “ponderous speeches” of “crabgrass Ciceros.”
They’re our crabgrass Ciceros and at least they show up.
[This column originally appeared in the November 7, 2013 Wakefield Daily Item.]
Filed under: Columns & Essays, Humor, Opinion, Politics, Wakefield | 1 Comment
Tags: Boston Globe, Edward L. Glaeser, Mark Sardella, Massachusetts, Open Town Meeting, town government, Wakefield Daily Item, Wakefield MA