I BEG TO DIFFER: ‘Purest form of democracy?’ Hardly

Jo Ann Augeri Silva
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Marblehead resident Jo Ann Augeri Silva, a retired journalist, author, public relations professional and educator, was an editor of the Marblehead Reporter.

“Open Town Meeting is the purest form of democracy.”

I’ve heard this phrase so many times in the past 53 years. No question, those who proclaim it firmly believe it’s true. 

I disagree.

Consider the sometimes rowdy, occasionally contentious, intensely public spectacle that is the open town meeting, at least as it’s practiced here in our beloved, nearly 400-year-old town. 

Consider the catcalls when speakers “run long.” 

Consider the desperate calls for a quorum when the Town Meeting itself runs long. 

Consider the long lines at the microphones. Often, folks in the line are unclear on the concept and feel compelled to demonstrate their lack of information by asking question after question. And there’s an equal number of folks who are sure they know far more about the concept than any of the town officials presenting information and want to demonstrate their superior knowledge by making long presentations themselves. 

Consider the fellow who, tired of listening to people he disagreed with, demanded that the moderator “call the vote.”

(FYI — and yes, this did make me cranky — the accurate term is “call the question.”)

What made me even more cranky is the number of people he inspired. They loved the idea of calling the question so much they did it all night, even during presentations.

To prepare for annual Town Meeting, the town administrator, Select Board, Finance Committee, school superintendent and School Committee members, town department heads, the chairs of the many town committees and commissions, and, critically, the town moderator, work months to craft the language and mathematical data embedded in each of the articles in the Town Meeting warrant (basically, the agenda items for the meeting).

They hold hearings on the warrant, which are then dutifully and accurately reported in our local media. The officials also work with citizens who want to make changes in town government to be sure their warrant article proposals are phrased legally and clearly.

They do all this to inform the town’s voters about what to expect before Town Meeting begins, to try to ensure that the meeting runs in an orderly fashion, following the parliamentary procedure detailed in Benjamin Johnson’s “Town Meeting Time.” (Note: Town Meeting does not follow Robert’s Rules of Order.)

Sometimes — and with some voters — that preparation and education works. Some people show up at the Veterans Memorial Middle School auditorium with facts and figures, not to mention intelligently considered opinions, delicately balanced in their brains. Many town employees and volunteers have prepared statements and presentations that expand on the bare facts in the warrant to help voters feel clear about each topic.

However, no matter what the year, what the hot topic, some folks sign in at the front door who never think about warrant articles until the printed copy of the Finance Committee Report is in their hands. It’s rare that these folks sit quietly befuddled in their uncomfortable folding seats. Usually, they queue up in the aisles waiting for their turn to ask uninformed questions at the microphones set up for that purpose (see rant above). This is their right. I wish it weren’t.

Here’s the thing: Those who’ve diligently worked to craft cogent presentations about complicated issues deserve the courtesy of a fair hearing. And those who have spent no time at all considering the pros and cons of complicated issues have the right as citizens to ask uninformed, often whiny, questions. Is this the same set of rights? 

According to the concept of “open town meeting,” it is. Any registered voter in town can come to Town Meeting and vote and/or speak. Whether they know a lot about town government or next to nothing.

(It must be noted that both types of speakers really do love speaking. And speaking.)

Consider this, if nothing else: In a town of nearly 20,000 residents, just 300 voters are considered a quorum of the town’s 16,232 registered voters.

Therefore, the way our Open Town Meeting works, when 300 voters have seated themselves in the auditorium, that is considered enough voters to make monumental decisions about the way the town is zoned, the structure of its policies, and how its schools, town employees and town services are funded. Again: whether they choose to be informed or not.

Year to year, attendance at Town Meeting fluctuates depending on how “popular” (or unpopular) warrant article proposals seem to be. Sometimes, thousands of voters show up to  support — or oppose — a proposal they feel passionate about.

But no matter whether topics are hot or cold, the business of the town can be decided by the majority (sometimes a two-thirds majority) of just 300 people. And, yet again: whether they know anything about the topic or not.

There were some hot issues this year, primarily a vote on whether the town should override the restrictions of Proposition 2 1/2 to avoid major cuts in town services. The vote, on Article 31, was taken on Tuesday night, when 764 people attended and voted in favor by secret paper ballot. (More on that later.)

Following that vote, as often happens, the folks who were most interested in the override left. So, by the time Article 44 came up, to change Select Board terms from yearly to staggered, three-year terms, only 545 voters remained in the auditorium. A major change in an electoral tradition of nearly 400 years was passed, 280 in favor, 265 opposed. That’s a majority of just 15 votes. Majority ruled.

Then there was Wednesday night. Because the entire warrant wasn’t completed Tuesday, the Town Meeting was continued for a third night. There were just six articles left. Those of us who arrived at 6:45 needn’t have worried about finding a parking space — there were plenty. We sat in our seats and waited — and waited — until that arbitrary 300 voters, a quorum, had finally arrived. 

Sorry, but there’s nothing “pure” about this form of democracy. It’s haphazard. It puts the fate of the many in the hands of too few who are too often uninformed. 

My version of pure democracy? The sanctity of the secret ballot box. A legally registered voter, given a ballot with two or more choices, makes her decision, marks the ballot indicating that decision and turns it in, the secrecy of her choice secure. She may or may not be informed, but she has (one hopes) done her dithering in private. Why do you think so many groups of nine voters requested a secret paper ballot on several warrant articles this year? Because they understood the safety and sanctity of secrecy.

One answer to this unwieldy form of government? The representative town meeting. In this form, the voters in a town select a slate of town meeting members whose diligence and/or opinions they respect to represent them at their town meeting.

Members are expected to be prepared and honorable, and if voters are displeased with the way they carry out their duties, the representatives can be voted out.

This is admittedly a minority opinion. Of the 292 towns in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the vast majority follow the open town meeting/select board/town administrator form of government. Fewer than 50 towns use a representative town meeting/select board/town administrator form of government. Swampscott, our neighboring community, has a representative town meeting, which probably isn’t an argument in my favor.

I concede that this is an argument whose time has yet to come. Sadly. There may be signs of hope for our current unwieldy form. Occasionally, a local civic group will hold a forum or course about how our town government works. One such lecture series started May 15, sponsored by the town of Marblehead and the estimable League of Women Voters (those smart women you see counting hands at Town Meeting). 

Clearly, only a fraction of the multitudes who could benefit from this course will attend, even though the series will be a hybrid of in-person at Abbot Public Library and streaming. But maybe that especially whiny person who kept asking all those very uninformed questions might decide to learn a bit about our town. Fingers are crossed. Crankily.

Marblehead resident Jo Ann Augeri Silva, a retired journalist, author, public relations professional and educator, was an editor of the Marblehead Reporter.

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