Town meeting: Democracy or numbers racket?

By Noel Beyle
The Cape Codder
Apr 09, 2012

I’ve never been too impressed by town meetings. But, there are clearly those who thrive on them, particularly those unafraid to stand up and speak to a crowd. Some are gadflies, more are serious voters. Regardless of my distain for these sometimes theatrical/humorous (but mostly boring) meetings, there’s no question about their power and importance in local governance.

So, why don’t I like town meetings? Well, for one, in Massachusetts, nonresidents can’t vote (just attend). They can vote where their primary domicile is, but not here. Take Eastham, for example, where the division between resident registered voters and nonresidents is just about a 50/50 split, according to town hall. Some 4,152 resident voters get to decide a mega-million issue like municipal water, which will be on the warrant in May. Nonresidents, who pay an estimated 57 percent of the town tax bill, have no say. Taxation without representation, I’d call it.

Secondly, although it’s admirable that people will get on their feet to hoot and holler over the issues at town meeting, there’s no secret ballot. If, for instance, you’re not inclined to vote for an override to give town employees a healthy pay raise (like Eastham last year), you have to indicate by yelling aye or nay/or raise your hand in an accounting by monitors. Going to vote “no” amid a sea of fire-rescue folks, police and other town workers? That’s pressure … and not very democratic.

Third, in Eastham (and in other towns) you only need a quorum of 5 percent of resident registered voters: 208 people out of 4,152. If you add in nonresidents who can’t vote, this figure could conceivably go as low as 2.5 percent of people who live here. Of course, the numbers are rarely this pitiful. Last year, Eastham came in with 609 attending town meeting or around 15 percent of the voters. Again, if you add in possible nonresidents, the percentage drops down to 7 percent of townsfolk.

Fourth, since the required number of town meeting voters needed to pass or defeat a warrant item is relatively puny (and unrepresentative), often a determined group can win the day by packing the meeting with their supporters. In 2011, the necessary two thirds vote on keeping the Roach property in North Eastham as open space (rather than a spot for solar panels to decrease the municipal electric bill) was achieved by a determined conservation-minded public – to the tune of 268 for and 110 people against – a 71 percent victory for a proposed Sandy Way Park, taking only 6 percent of all registered voters in town. This year, the appointed and elected town hall moguls are seeking to overturn that vote. Did you catch that last statement, you environmental voters out there?

Finally, town meetings are held on weekday nights, a time when seniors are often reluctant to drive their cars (or even go out) and working people are tired after a day’s work. The meetings aren’t held during the daytime on weekends when you might get increased participation. It’s almost like town hall officials prefer a smaller turnout so they can get whatever they want approved with barely a whisper of dissent (perish such an undemocratic thought, right?).

OK, enough said, but the issues at town meetings are important. Eastham this year is pushing for a new town-wide municipal water system while Orleans will be going for a huge wastewater project – both very expensive and equally controversial. All you Eastham “Yellowbellies” and Orleans “Greenbackers” should take heed: Going to town meeting in 2012 is essential if you value your conscience and/or your wallet. If you don’t go, don’t complain about your tax bill.

While I believe town meetings are seriously flawed, you legal voters should bite the bullet and participate (and don’t forget to vote in the municipal elections that follow town meeting, too).

At a minimum, you owe that to all those nonvoting nonresidents who pay a sizable part of local finances.

Noel Beyle writes from Eastham.

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