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Town Meeting article

‘Relic’ is democracy at its best

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Published in The Boston Herald

Robert H. Saquet

While many relics of our Puritan past have withered into obsolescence there is one that stands tall in the eyes and hearts of New Englanders — our venerable Town Meeting, the garden of government where the seeds of democracy are planted.
Urbanites seem so numbed by government bureaucracies that they have lost the ability to rub elbows with the individuals who still speak their minds and vote their hearts. Our towns still allow it. Town Meeting is not a form of government — it is a legislative body. It is an open and transparent place to conduct municipal business. Town Meetings are efficient and will have passed balanced budgets and finished their business by the end of June. If only our state and national legislatures could be so open.
“Tyranny of the minority” may better describe Congress than it does the Town Meeting. What good is being “elected” if you are representing special interests and lobbyists rather than your electorate?
Every eligible voter should attend a Town Meeting this year. In colonial days Town Meeting attendance was mandatory, but only if you were a church-going male landowner. Today we usually see a limited proportion of a town’s voters attend — but they can be any registered voter — man, woman or atheist. Failure to attend is the choice of citizens who have confidence in those who do attend. Keep in mind, that small fraction that does attend is far more representative than any city or town council of a dozen or so politicians.
Accessibility is a virtue of the Town Meeting. A state law dating back to 1715 allows 10 people to put an issue on the agenda for the meeting. This is their democratic right, whether the topic deals with water bottles, plastic bags, zoning changes or barking dogs. True, some Town Meetings get bogged down in apparently trivial matters. But these are issues that people are passionate about, and the Town Meeting gives them a forum to convince their neighbors to follow.
I never cease to be amazed at the quality of discussion from our townspeople. Elected officials must be prepared to listen. There is always someone in the hall who has expertise on the subject at hand and asks probing questions. Avid voters listen. They may arrive uninformed, but when a vote is called they know to make the right choice. Yes, there are some who come for a single issue and leave when their vote is taken, but dozens, if not hundreds, more stay to the end. There are some who do love to pontificate, but a gentle suggestion from the moderator can let them know they are repeating themselves and they will yield the microphone.
Town Meetings are embracing technology. Power Point presentations are easier to understand, cable TV broadcasts the meetings, and several towns have adopted electronic voting to speed things along.
As I stated, Town Meeting is not a form of government — it is the most democratic legislative body.
Replacing the Town Meeting with a town or city council will not solve any of a town’s political problems. Anyone who thinks the Town Meeting with its openness can be swapped for a ballot box is living in serious denial.
Robert H. Saquet is town moderator in Mansfield and president of the Massachusetts Moderators Association. “As You Were Saying” is a regular Herald feature.

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