It’s April. Around here that means rain, daffodils, and that inefficient relic of our Puritan past: Town Meeting.
Ah, yes, Town Meeting. That uniquely New England institution where any registered voter can gather a few signatures (some towns require as few as 10) for any half-baked idea and — presto! — it’s on the town warrant.
Want to ban the use of leaf blowers (Arlington and Marblehead)? Put it on the warrant!
Think your town should require leashes for cats (Concord)? Put it on the warrant!
Want your town to go on record as pro-Second Amendment? Draft a law requiring a gun in every home (Byron, Maine). And put it on the warrant!
Yes, across New England this spring, minute fractions of the electorate — unelected and often uninformed — will congregate to approve budgets, pass bylaws, and debate issues of importance (and many of no importance).
Mostly, they will gather to hear themselves talk — to pontificate, bloviate, and hold court before captive audiences of voters desperate to cast their ballots on that one significant agenda item and go home.
In Concord, for the third consecutive year, residents spent an evening of their lives debating the sale of single-serving water bottles. Just over a thousand Concordians (of the town’s approximately 11,000 registered voters) attended Wednesday’s Town Meeting. The rest had lives to lead that prevented them from sitting in a crowded auditorium for hours on end listening to environmentalists and consumer advocates go at it.
And so by only 66 votes, with only 12 percent of the town’s electorate present, Town Meeting defeated an effort to lift the controversial water ban (approved by an equally narrow margin last year). Not exactly democracy in action.
In small 17th- and 18th-century agrarian communities, where only men voted and women-folk were home to mind the children, this form of participatory governance may have made sense.
After all, what else was there for Colonial farmers to do in the evenings? They weren’t rushing out after a long day in the fields to drive their kids to hockey practice, pick up the dry-cleaning, or play a round of golf. Back then, town meeting was not just a form of government, it was the social event of the season.
But in 2013, when many people commute to work, travel on business, or work the night shift, the idea of hiring a sitter in order to spend hours debating politics deters many citizens from taking part in local decision-making at all.
Put simply, Town Meeting has a discriminatory impact on working voters and voters with young children. It leaves governance to an unrepresentative minority of voters — usually single, childless, or elderly, who have time to spend long hours debating items that could be easily resolved in moments. For instance — call me crazy — at the ballot box.
The Minutemen who sacrificed their lives at the North Bridge would no doubt be appalled to see how Town Meeting has become a tyranny of the minority.
In an era of early voting, electronic voting, and other innovations intended to expand access to the ballot, it is ironic that many New England towns cling to this arcane and anti-democratic form of government. Try to move the location of a polling place or check a voter’s identification, and the ACLU screams voter suppression and disfranchisement. But allow a tiny, unelected minority of voters to make decisions for an entire town, and it is hailed it as civic engagement. Puh-leez.
Can’t we just admit that it’s time to abolish Town Meeting?