According to the official recap of the October 3 Town Meeting, there were 142 voters in attendance. Those 142 people voted to, among other things, approve the town’s $50,082,311 budget. So, in effect, each of them spent $352,692.33 of our hard-earned money. They represent about 1.35 percent of the town’s registered voters spending 100 percent of the town’s cash.
I’d like to applaud and thank those 142 people for giving their evening in the service of the town. On top of managing busy schedules, they somehow carved out enough time to participate in this 300 year-old New England form of pure democracy. I wasn’t one of them. I dozed off reading the meeting warrant so I figured I had little chance in the meeting itself. I didn’t bother trying to watch it on TV either – the excitement level combined with a recliner was just too much to even consider.
I’ve been to other Town Meetings though. I usually get drawn in by some issue that directly affects me or my family, often issues related to the schools. Such meetings typically draw a much larger attendance, sometimes even overflowing the capacity of the High School’s auditorium. Some of these have had some real excitement too with heated debate and emotional demands for votes one way or the other. I’ve stood and spoken several times – tossing in my two cents before proudly raising my hand in support of one position or another.
You have to wonder about the true effectiveness of a these meetings. Decisions are made either by a piddling minority of the town’s population or by a plethora of passionate partisans often advocating for their own parochial pleas rather than making decisions based on objective criteria drawn from familiarity with the town’s affairs.
According to William Francis Galvin’s Citizen's Guide to Town Meetings, “Here in this ancient American assembly, you can make your voice heard as you and your neighbors decide the course of the government closest to you.” It sounds very exciting but I wonder if a sleepy “ancient American assembly” that draws only 1.35 percent of its constituents is really the best way to run a modern community.
Before 1821, every municipality in Massachusetts was governed by Town Meeting. Since then, larger populations have been able to choose between Open Town Meetings, like North Reading’s, Representative Town Meetings, or City Governments. With more than 14,000 residents, North Reading qualifies to choose any of these.
Massachusetts General Laws, Part I, Title VII, Chapter 43 defines six possible structures for a city government. Each consists of some form of a council or commission and a mayor and/or a manager. The key difference between these and a Town Meeting is that the city leaders are running the affairs of the municipality on a continuous basis – not just when something perks their interest. They govern day to day, even when the topics are boring, gaining experience and competency throughout their terms, and are compelled do so in such a way as to be re-elected.
I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off with a few dedicated officials spending our $50 million rather than the 1.35 percent speaking for the other 98.65 percent of us. “The City of North Reading.” That sounds OK to me.