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Easton officials consider end to Town Meeting

Easton officials have begun to explore a 2009 charter study report that recommends trading in the community’s almost 300-year-old Town Meeting tradition for a more efficient town council/town manager form of government.

The change makes sense, given the routinely low turnout at the townwide gatherings, according to the report. A handful of other south suburbs, including Braintree, Bridgewater, Randolph, and Weymouth, have made the switch.

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In Easton, a nine-member subcommittee is forming to study the charter study report’s findings for about six months before determining the next steps. If the current form of government is to be changed, it must be approved, ironically, by Easton Town Meeting, as well as a local ballot question and the Legislature, said Board of Selectmen chairman Dan Murphy.

“This was on the back burner for a while, and I finally decided it was time to do something about it,’’ said Murphy, who resurrected the dormant charter study last year. “Town Meeting has reached its high-water mark. It’s not the most efficient way to run a town.”

He said the study was set aside when the town became engrossed in the redevelopment of the Ames Shovel Works site, an old factory complex that now houses apartments.

Easton has hired a consultant from the Edward J. Collins Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston to help it interpret data, Murphy said.

The defining reason to keep Town Meeting is that it gives residents a voice. “But we can still allow for that in a town council situation,” he said.

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Town Administrator David Colton said times have certainly changed since New England’s early days when life revolved around Town Meetings. Families are busier than ever, with parents often working more than one job, and everyone has children involved in multiple, time-absorbing activities, he said. Reaching the required 100-person Town Meeting quorum in a community with more than 13,000 registered voters has been difficult.

After a quorum challenge at a recent meeting held at Oliver Ames High School, officials had to call players from a pickup basketball game there, and even pressed a custodian into service to make up the difference, Colton said.

According to the charter study, Easton should replace Town Meeting with a nine-member, president-led council with six members elected by precinct or ward, and three at-large members, similar to councils in Braintree, Bridgewater, and Randolph. The town of Weymouth is represented by six district councilors and five at-large members.

The town council mode of government probably makes sense, said Peter Ubertaccio, an associate professor of political science at Stonehill College and also director of its Martin Institute for Law and Society.

“The challenges Easton is facing are being faced by many,” Ubertaccio said. “It’s not that people are necessarily disinterested, or apathetic, but that modern life places new demands on them, not the least of which is travel time.”

Ubertaccio said he has missed Town Meeting in his own community of Sandwich a few times because of the commute.

Town Meetings were established at a time when populations were small, people lived and worked in the community, and government was not very complicated, he said.

“It’s a part of our heritage in New England and not easily dismissed,’’ he said. “People are hesitant to jettison things that make us distinctive.”

But on the other hand, “community life has changed,” Ubertaccio said. “And Town Meeting has not.’’

In addition to Braintree, Bridgewater, Randolph, and Weymouth, other communities that have opted to switch their governments to either a manager/council or mayor/council model include the towns of Franklin, Palmer, and Winthrop, said Pat Mikes, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Bridgewater underwent some difficulty during its transition in 2010 to a manager/council government but began to function more smoothly after a court decision smothered a power struggle between the town manager and council members.

“Change is hard, especially change in a small government,” Mikes said, but most towns believe it is necessary if the process is not working.

Some communities make changes because of the times, she said. Others might try to eliminate dysfunction, resolve contentious issues, or address the fact that attendance at Town Meetings is poor.

“The only time you pack them in is if there is an override,’’ she said, referring to the occasional attempt in towns to raise local property taxes beyond the limits of the Proposition 2½ state law.

Robert Saquet — Massachusetts Moderators Association past president, who is the town moderator in Mansfield — said efforts to eliminate Town Meeting probably indicate there is something wrong with a town, not the Town Meeting process.

“Bridgewater was a classic example,’’ he said, referring to its former power clashes and in-fighting.

Saquet said voters who are ignored, or who have had enough of a town’s “good old boy” network, do not have much incentive to attend Town Meetings and would probably rather stay home to watch Monday Night Football. But Town Meeting is still important, he said.

“It’s open and democratic,” he said. “People can speak, listen, ask questions, and vote. It’s foolproof, and functional.”

Colton said he does not necessarily agree with the notion that a proposed government change means something is wrong in a town. Maybe a low turnout at Town Meeting means that something is right, he said.

“It’s like crime,’’ Colton said. “If it’s low, does that mean you don’t need a police department?”

The issue in Easton is about functionality in complicated times, he said.

“I’d rather have a legislative body that meets twice a month, rather than twice a year,’’ he said.

But he conceded that, if things stay the same, that will be OK, too. “I think the town is running reasonably well, and if the charter doesn’t change, it’s not the end of the world,” he said.

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

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