Kingston supporters insist that the town’s open Town Meeting is “the truest form of democracy,” but even they wonder how democratic it is when meeting attendance dwindles and big decisions are made by small numbers.
Officials say on average only 3 percent of the town’s 8,000 registered voters show up for Town Meeting sessions.
“We have a $39 million budget and it’s voted on by a handful of people,” said Town Clerk Mary Lou Murzyn.
In a move aimed at drawing more people to Town Meeting, town officials have created a new committee to come up with ways to increase attendance through more voter education and inducements, such as serving lunch and providing free babysitting. Some officials believe the key is to persuade local voters to care about the process by which the town’s most important decisions are made.
In Kingston, all registered local voters are entitled to speak and vote at Town Meeting, the branch of local government that makes a town’s most significant decisions — approving an annual budget and other major expenditures and raising or lowering local taxes in consequence.
“This is how we govern in the town of Kingston,” said Jean Landis-Naumann, a former selectwoman. “Every voter can stand up and have their say.”
Attending Town Meeting, officials said, is the best way to make something happen, or not happen. If you want to build a new school or hire another police officer, or close an unnecessary building and eliminate wasteful spending — you need a vote by Town Meeting.
In recent years, however, those decisions are being made by fewer representatives of the town’s electorate.
“Last time the number of people at Town Meeting was lower than it has been for a number of years,” Murzyn said.
Only 180 people showed up for this year’s opening Saturday session of the annual Town Meeting held by town bylaw in April. Other sessions in recent years drew in the low 200s. Selectmen can call a “special” Town Meeting at any time (with sufficient notice) to deal with a pressing issue, but the budget is addressed at the annual meeting.
Occasionally, hot-button issues such as a big new development draw larger crowds, but these participants tend to be single-issue voters. They walk out before the rest of the town’s business is conducted, leaving that job to the faithful few.
Kingston is hardly the only town having trouble drawing voters to its meeting. In Avon, town officials recently reduced the quorum — the minimum number of voters needed — to 50. Two years ago the town was reduced to asking attendants to use their phones to call friends and neighbors and beg them to attend. In Wayland a study of the attendance issue concluded that fewer than 5 percent of voters attend on average.
Some Massachusetts towns have eliminated the quorum altogether. Kingston changed its quorum rule to require 100 voters only for spending, borrowing, and bylaw-change votes.
To deal with the attendance issue, Kingston selectmen have formed the Town Meeting Committee and appointed Selectwoman Susan Munford, to it. Munford will join town moderator Janet Wallace, Murzyn, and four other appointees . Its official charge is to hold educational and voter registration forums, but when the new group meets to consider ideas, supporters say everything will be on the table — including lunch.
Offering lunch at the annual Town Meeting’s opening Saturday session may help turn it into a more widely observed community event, Landis-Naumann said. Providing babysitting to attract parents of young children is another idea, along with partnering with the schools to make attending a town meeting part of the curriculum. Officials said the committee will make recommendations in time for the next annual meeting. Some say what voters need is an education in civics.
“I think we all need to get back to the basics and take part in and get interested in town government,” Murzyn said. “We want to get the kids involved somehow, and through the kids we get the parents.”
“There seems to be a real disconnect with the voting public and how their town is managed,” said Landis-Naumann. “I hear people say ‘I don’t understand why selectmen are increasing our taxes.’ ” In fact, she pointed out, it’s not selectmen who raise taxes but the spending decisions made by Town Meeting.
But hooking people on Town Meeting — a big time commitment with little apparent short-range benefit — can be a hard sell, Landis-Naumann acknowledged. And while it may be democratic, it doesn’t necessarily give the impression that it’s an effective way to run a town.
“You walk into an auditorium. People get up and talk. Other people refute what they said. You feel you don’t know enough about the subject to make an educated vote,” she said. The most common comment, she said, is “Why does it take so long?”
But the town gets out of it, she said, what voters are willing to put into it.
“It takes a while to appreciate the true value of the whole process,” Landis-Naumann said. “You can think you’re going to vote one way and what’s said during the debate can help you to see things a different way. . . . It’s a discourse that truly educates a lot of voters.”