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Town meeting no longer a big draw

It’s town meeting season in Massachusetts, and the age-old democratic tradition that once drew overflow crowds to vote on town business is prompting aggravation in some communities south of Boston, which have at times had to resort to frantic cellphone calls and urgent e-mails this spring to get enough people to show up.

The quorum issue, in a changing world, has prompted some officials to wonder whether the historic public process that dates to Mayflower days has finally run its course.

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Bridgewater and Randolph have already eliminated town meetings altogether, opting instead for a town council/strong town manager form of government. Seven communities south of Boston hold representative town meetings, which officials say are less inclined to have quorum issues since their members are elected. They are Dedham, Holbrook, Milton, Norwood, Plymouth, Stoughton, and Walpole.

Others, like Hingham and Westwood, have had to resort to additional appeals this spring by sending out e-mail blasts or asking voters to call friends and family to pull in voters after quorum counts dipped below the required number to be able to continue with town business. At the same time, a warrant article at this sring’s session to drop Hingham’s quorum from 300 to 200 was rejected.

Brockton, Braintree, Quincy, and Weymouth have opted for mayors and town or city councils. The rest, from Abington to Whitman, have maintained the tradition of open town meetings.

Norton does not require a quorum, but even so, Bill Gouveia, the town moderator, said it is perhaps time to give up the old town meeting form of governance. The average citizen does not have the time or the inclination to attend a televised meeting, stand up in public to question a $45 million budget, “and risk looking stupid,” he said.

“We complain when we don’t get enough people, then if we get 2,000 we don’t know what to do with them,’’ said Gouveia. “People say Town Meeting works because we get a budget every year. Well, the horse and buggy worked, too. But I’d rather drive a car. We have outgrown the system.”

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Town meeting is government for the lazy, he added: “You only go when there is something there you are interested in.”

Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said quorum issues are an indicator of how pressed for time people are, especially in a tight economy where they might be working more than one job.

Others may not have as easy a time getting out at night, he said, and cannot volunteer to serve on boards or attend town meetings as they once did.

“During cycles like this, people often take a hard look at their government and compare it with others,” said Beckwith. “But it’s important when making changes to honor the past. While some towns may shift from town meeting to a town council, or from an executive secretary to a town manager, it takes a little time to find a rhythm, then the system works.’’

Canton, Duxbury, Hull, Marshfield, Norwell, and Scituate — like Norton — also have a zero-quorum rule to avoid numbers problems.

Rocco Longo, Marshfield town manager, said he believes the zero-quorum system works because people have an inherent distrust of town leaders and will show up to be sure their voices are heard.

“There is a perception that a quorum makes it more democratic,’’ Longo said. “But the reality is the real democracy is when everyone shows up.”

Avon is one of those communities that, despite its 2,200 registered voters, never had a problem coming up with a 100-person quorum — until recent years, said its moderator, Frank Staffier.

“I can remember years ago that we would have 125 people, 150 people, in nothing flat and everyone would get up and speak,’’ said Staffier, who has run the public meetings for 26 years.

About eight years ago, the town lowered the quorum to 75 people, he said, to ensure there were enough members to be able to get started.

When desperate , he has the fire chief get on the radio to summon the department’s 30 call firefighters, Staffier said.

To ensure that he keeps the numbers he needs, Staffier calls the warrant articles out of order in a sort of Bingo approach, picking numbers out of a hat so that residents interested in a particular item have no choice but to stay for the evening.

Staffier said he does not understand the trend away from democratic participation and can only attribute it to a surge of new, younger families in town who do not have the time. Older people seem to take the town more seriously, he said.

“To be honest, I don’t understand it,’’ he said. “People don’t realize that town meeting affects their taxes and their services. It’s the purest form of democracy.”

Foxborough’s May 14 Town Meeting had a number of quorum checks, as the forum stretched past 11 p.m. Although the quorum of 100 was not breached, some attendees, like former selectman Paul Feeney, said it is time to consider moving to the representative town meeting, following several outbursts from residents and efforts to prevent others from speaking.

Feeney said Foxborough is better than that, and needs “to embrace debate, discussion, and an open exchange of ideas.” A representative town meeting would at least allow articles to be fully vetted before voting takes place, he said.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Milton, a town celebrating its 350th anniversary of incorporation this year, whose Town Meeting was a spectacle of patriotic pomp and circumstance, replete with Colonial costumes and a fife and drum corps playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

On May 7, hundreds of residents packed the First Parish Church in Milton, which hosted town meetings until 1835. This year’s Town Meeting was 350 years to the day of the original gathering, officials said.

During the celebration, the town moderator, Brian Walsh, honored the town’s longest-serving Representative Town Meeting member, M. Joseph Manning, 89, who has served for 65 years. Walsh also honored Marita Cronin, a relative newcomer in comparison, who has served her 50 years with perfect attendance. In total, the town has 279 representatives in 10 precincts.

Town Meeting is a proud Milton tradition, Walsh said, and he has never known it to have a problem with attendance: “It’s uniquely New England. You don’t find it in any other part of the country.”

Although Westwood had some quorum problems on its first night of Town Meeting this year, the second night exceeded its 175-person requirement by 20 people, said the town administrator, Michael Jaillet.

“The use of new technology to reach our voters is what I believe makes the difference,’’ he said. “Open Town Meeting is important. It works. It’s clearly a barometer about how people feel we are doing.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.

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