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Concord

Sunday Town Meeting on table

Option considered to boost turnout

As a way to boost attendance at Concord’s annual Town Meeting and make it easier for the small percentage of voters that sit through hours of late-night discussion on budgets and bylaws, town officials are considering a Sunday session in 2014.

The Board of Selectmen is seeking input from residents about the idea and will discuss the option at its meeting on Monday. The board is responsible for setting the time and date of Town Meeting.

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“It would be a nice experiment to see if more people can come,’’ said Jeffrey Wieand, the board’s chairman. “By varying the time, we give more people the opportunity to attend.’’

Robert Saquet of Mansfield, president of the Massachusetts Moderators Association, said most towns hold meetings on weekday evenings and a handful, such as Lincoln, hold all-day Saturday sessions. He said he was not aware of any towns holding Sunday sessions.

However, Wayland Town Administrator Fred Turkington said a Town Meeting session was held on a Sunday this spring, the third time the town has done so. The change has not resulted in higher attendance.

While Sunday may be preferable to seniors who don’t like driving at night or to second-shift workers, the weekend session didn’t work for others because of religious reasons or family commitments, Turkington said.

Concord’s town moderator, Eric Van Loon, said officials had considered a Saturday session, but it didn’t go over well because of the Jewish Sabbath and the number of youth sports events held that day.

He said selectmen are now considering a proposal that calls for scheduling the first session of the 2014 annual Town Meeting on Sunday, May 4, beginning at 2 p.m. and ending by 6 p.m. He said the afternoon start time would still allow residents to go to church and be home with their family in the evening. Town Meeting would convene again on Monday, then Tuesday and Wednesday if necessary.

Van Loon said the typical evening sessions are three to four hours long, so a Sunday afternoon would be plenty of time to get scheduled business accomplished.

Judy Walpole, administrator of Trinitarian Congregational Church on Walden Street, said the church hasn’t taken an official position on the proposal, but she didn’t think it would be a problem given the 2 p.m. start time.

“That would be well after our church services are over so I don’t think it would be a conflict for us,’’ Walpole said.

Attendance at Concord’s annual Town Meeting has actually increased over the past five years, but the percentage of voter participation is still low. Officials also say there’s a longstanding concern that evening Town Meetings are difficult for senior citizens, parents with young children, and early-morning commuters. In recent years, several Town Meeting sessions have ended after 11 p.m., with some controversial votes taking place close to midnight.

“When sessions go that late, people with baby sitters or people who have to get to Boston early the next morning cannot stay for the full session,’’ said Van Loon. “We’re always open and interested in ideas that would increase participation in Town Meeting and make it more user-friendly.’’

Over the past 15 years, the lowest turnout for an annual Concord Town Meeting was in 2009, when just 6.7 percent of the town’s registered voters participated. Since then, participation has gradually gone up. In 2010 it was 7.9 percent; 2011, 9.5; 2012, 9.7; and 2013, 14.2. The 2013 attendance rate was the third highest in the past 15 years. In fact, Van Loon said 2013 was the first time that more than 1,000 people attended Town Meeting on two different evenings.

“From my perspective, there’s a steady, solid percentage of citizen participation in town governance, but it’s a minority,’’ he said.

The Board of Selectmen’s office had already received 50 responses by e-mail a day after asking residents for input, with most of them in favor of a Sunday session.

In addition to seeking feedback from residents, Wieand is checking with other town committees for input and Van Loon is broaching the idea with clergy members.

Concord residents can send their feedback about a Sunday session to Ruth Lauer, the selectmen’s administrative assistance at the Concord Town House, 22 Monument Square, Concord, MA, 01742 or by e-mail at rlauer@concordma.gov.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.
com.
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