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Town Meeting Adjourned

Is it time for North Reading to abandon the ancient Town Meeting in favor of a modern city government structure?

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 ’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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Norcam Rob October 07, 2011 at 09:27 PM
I have worked with the local governments for four different towns and cities as an impartial eye keeping a public record when I didn't have the opportunity to be a part of that system. I have lived in three other communities outside of these four and either been a participant or an interested (and attending,) bystander in such meetings. Town Meeting works when it works and is probably the last true form of democracy that we consider "of the people, by the people, for the people." If the 98.65 percent don't like what the 1.35 percent decide, then maybe it is the fault of the 98.65 percent who choose to not particpate (or just want to be a part of arm chair and water cooler politics.) Are there some flaws to the system. Yes, it is frustrating when trying to reach a quorum an hour and a half after the posted 7:00pm start time, and you have to wonder how valid the process is when half of the said quorum leaves after their issue is done (like the rest of the Town and the Warrant Articles don't matter.) But, if this is the form of government used by your community and it works, then participate and be the change you wish to see. Truth be told, the weight of one snowflake is all it take to break the branch, and that snowflake I speak of is one vote. To those that don't wish to be a part of the system, as I always say "don't complain that you're knee deep in 'it' unless you have your shovel, bucket, and hip boots because that is what it takes to get out of 'it'."
Joe Veno October 07, 2011 at 11:14 PM
LEAVE IT ALONE ! It is not broken do not try to fix it.
Marci Bailey October 08, 2011 at 09:05 PM
Well said, Rob.
Monica Gregoire October 09, 2011 at 08:01 PM
I agree with John. Town Meeting was a great idea when North Reading was a rural community with a tiny population. It is 2011 and work does not end at sundown. While I'm sure some people choose to stay home and sit in their recliners, others that would like to attend have schedules that do not allow participation. Some people do have to work, or attend night classes school. There are others that have very young children...
Joe Veno October 10, 2011 at 12:47 AM
Monica I am not clear on what you are saying. are you in favor of changing it.? If so why? People would still have the comitments you mention.
Monica Gregoire October 10, 2011 at 02:56 PM
The form of Government should be changed to meet the current needs of the town. It was an appropriate form of government when North Reading was a small, agrarian town. William Galvin describes this 300 year old form of government as “ancient” in “A Citizen's Guide to Town Meeting” and while it is “purest form of democratic governing”, it is not practical in 2011. An elected legislative body would allow everyone to vote in a general election for the representatives that they believe would best represent the town needs. A general election would allow more people that work late, travel for work or have very young children to predetermine the legislative body at the polls (or through an absentee ballot) who then would be accountable for their actions.
Joe Veno October 10, 2011 at 11:19 PM
Monica one thing you posted is correct. it is "purest form of democratic governing". The same people attend town meeting all the time. So who do you think would run to represent their area? Answer, The same people who are there now. So all you have done is taken away the right of a voter to vote at town meeting. Also the special interest groups would have a lot fewer people to swing their way and they could do it from home. I suggest you talk to people in other towns who have representative town meeting and you will find most do not like it.
Monica Gregoire October 11, 2011 at 03:57 PM
Joe, Neither system is perfect, however, with an elected legislative body we would have more accountability. The current system does not allow this. Sure the current people would run for office, but they wouldn't be the only ones to do this. With our current system there is no true accountability. Do you know who will be yelling their vote when they cannot make the meeting because their job requires them to be out of town?
Joe Veno October 11, 2011 at 04:35 PM
Monica, I think you are saying people who do not attend town meeting now would run for these psitions. I do think the only ones who would run are the people that attend town meeting now. If they are not attending now why would they bother to run?
Joe Veno October 11, 2011 at 04:49 PM
Monica, I also disagree with this statment you made,"however, with an elected legislative body we would have more accountability." Those same people are the people who are there now. So you can still hold them accountable now.
Mel Webster October 11, 2011 at 05:24 PM
It troubles me that basically no one attends town meeting, except as John noted, when a major issue is up for discussion. And, if you subtracted town officials from the total number of residents in attendance, the number would be shockingly low. That said, I still believe this is the best form of government for our town. As stated by others, if the 95-plus percent who don't show up don't like the votes of those who do show up, then get out of your easy chair and attend the next meeting. Every voice in our town is equal and every voice can be heard at town meeting.
Eileen M. October 11, 2011 at 05:26 PM
I agree with Monica, they would have more accountability, assuming they want to be re-elected. Especially if its a paid position. I'm not sure in town government what is paid and what is volunteer (i.e. Town Administrator is paid, but is a Selectperson paid).
Monica Gregoire October 11, 2011 at 07:12 PM
There are people in town that actively participate on boards because they are care about what happens in town that don't attend town meeting. Why? Are these people sitting back in their easy chairs? Are their other reasons? The modern realities of work and family keep many people from casting a vote. It is easy to say that these people just don't care or are just sitting home in their easy chair, but that is not necessarily the truth. It has been asked if people if people who do not attend town meeting would bother voting. Again, there are civic minded peaople that might later down the road. These people may choose to run for office when their children get older or have a change in their work schedule that would allow them to serve as an elected official. Those same people pay taxes here and should have some sort of accountable representative casting a vote on their behalf. Under the current system 100 individuals might show up at a meeting. You do not know who is attending town meeting and this individual is representing only themselves. How can we hold these unelected people accountable when they have no fiduciary responsibilities to no one else? There may be people who unfortunately are sick and in the hospital, or had to travel out for town for work or are struggling to get a 9 month old baby to sleep that would love to vote too. These people would gladly cast a vote for an individual who would represent them when they are unable to.
Joe Veno October 11, 2011 at 09:40 PM
Well said Mel and I agree with you.
Joe Veno October 11, 2011 at 09:48 PM
I think some people should learn more about their town goverment before they agree to change it. Selectmen and most elected officials are NOT paid.
Barry October 12, 2011 at 09:02 PM
John, the annual budget is approved at the spring meeting. The October meeting just dealt with some amendments to the budget. So to say that the 142 attendees each "spent $352,692.33 of our hard-earned money" is fatuous.
John Intorcio October 13, 2011 at 02:38 AM
Barry: I'm often fatuous - particularly after eating pepperoni or beans. But I think you're missing the point of the post.
Norcam Rob October 14, 2011 at 06:35 PM
My last thought on this, when was the last time you heard about a corrupt Town Meeting VS how many times have you heard of a corrupt City Council? Hmmmm... I have heard of no corrupt Town Meetings myself, yet all we have to do is read the Boston Herald or even the Boston Phoenix to hear about the crap that goes on in Boston. There'd be an awful lot of shirts to stuff with money like Chuck and Diane...
Monica Gregoire October 15, 2011 at 10:10 PM
There are different variations of Town Meeting that are permitted under Massachusetts law. Representative Town Meeting is an option that should be considered. This form is great because the number of representatives at the meeting would be proportional to our population. Plus we would decide who would represent us and these people would then have to answer to the voters. Our system does not have to be scrapped, just tweaked to meet the needs of modern day North Reading.
Joe Veno October 15, 2011 at 11:08 PM
Represenative Town meeting is the worst type there is. Please talk to some people who lives in a town that has it and see what they say. I mean talk to a LOTof people in a town that has it like I have. Please do your homework before you propose changes...

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