Town meeting is a peculiarly New England tradition of governance, anchored in Athenian principles of democracy, practiced by nearly every one of the 296 towns in Massachusetts and hundreds of others in surrounding states.
Nowadays, many think it an antiquated form of government — except for those who live in communities that enjoy the full-throated benefit of its common-sense deliberation. Nonetheless, it is true that town government is in fact run by those who take the time and actually show up at the local high school or town hall on the appointed evening or day when the town meeting is called and business conducted. One way to improve town meeting is to bring it into the Internet age, so it better solicits the concerns of people who can’t be there in person.
Town meeting is a critical community conversation of real consequence about school kids, taxes, crime, fire response, zoning, marijuana dispensaries, and even just plain potholes. In open town meeting, any registered voter gets to opine and vote on the policies and budgets of their local government, acting as the legislature in their town. Representative town meetings elect neighbors to act in the same fashion, limiting voting to those town meeting members who are elected; it’s a sort of super city council that looks more familiar to those who live in cities.
As a rather new town moderator, I have always believed that town meeting has two constituencies — those who attend and participate in the meeting and those who are governed by what is decided at town meeting. To address this fact, we need a new initiative. Many have wondered why we can’t have a virtual town meeting, in which we citizens phone in our comments and vote on the web.
I have little doubt that such an experience will yet happen in generations hence. Government practice and law currently do not allow such opportunity. But that does not mean we cannot incrementally experience the future.
In a historic innovation, the North Andover Town Meeting will allow questions to be presented by citizens outside the meeting venue. Citizens who observe the meeting via the live broadcast and live streaming but are unable to attend will be allowed to email questions to a secure website and, after proper vetting for redundancy and voter identity, have their question posed to the meeting. Only questions will be presented — no statements of position, amendments, or motions will be allowed.
While all power is in the room, all knowledge may not be in attendance. On many occasions, I have seen a meeting that was seemingly hell-bent in a specific direction swayed by a single pointed question, a never-before-thought-of query, or the inability of a town official or proponent to answer a seemingly simple inquiry. The authority of the meeting should remain with those who are present, listen, deliberate and vote at the meeting. But those who do attend have a special obligation to those who will be governed by the judgments they make.
Our effort in North Andover has two goals: first, to better inform those who are at the meeting making decisions; and, second, to involve those who do not attend. Perhaps it is naive to believe that those sitting in the comfort of their homes or elsewhere would choose to become interested enough to participate in a meeting, but it is worth trying. In North Andover, in a full-bore effort to make the meeting fair, open, and efficient, we provide free child care, make citizens’ advocates available to help those unfamiliar with town meeting procedures, require disclosure of financial interests when one is speaking on an article, and have made significant improvements in visual aids and sound quality, so no one can complain about not seeing or hearing what is going on. Invariably the meeting lasts a single night, and it is certainly better entertainment than what is available on TV that evening.
We need to ensure that town meeting does not become an anachronism — a dinosaur of governance anchored to history and not relevant to the lives and society in which we live. Town meeting has changed in the last nearly 400 years. It is no longer limited to white landowning males of a certain religion. Unlike at the Suffolk Resolves meetings in 1774 — a sort of super town meeting which deliberated and voted on the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence two years before the now-celebrated July 4 — there’s no requirement that the tavern floor where the meeting was held be strong enough to hold 80 people or that there be 1 1/2 hitching posts with hay for each person attending.
Henry David Thoreau called the gathering of farmers at town meetings of the time “the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States.” Today we are a simple email away from affording everyone the opportunity to contribute directly to the most important judgments in their community, whether they can attend or not. Welcome to the internet age.