Town Meeting needs a boost
Published in the Brookline
February 24, 2000
When Stanley Spiegel urged residents to run for Town Meeting two weeks
ago, I realized how little I've learned about our highest legislative
body since my 1998 arrival. So I headed to Brookline's newly expanded
website to find out more. Unfortunately, the site doesn't say much. As
I eventually realized, Town Meeting's minimal web presence may accurately
reflect its current role in town government.
The town's official website
has buttons to click on for things like a calendar of town meetings, departmental
contacts, and information about the Selectmen (complete with photo). But
there's no Town Meeting button. You'd think there'd be an easy way to
find out about the town's central decision maker, the voice of the people.
I finally discovered that if you click on Town Information, and then
on Government, and then scroll down past the history section, you reach
three short paragraphs describing Town Meeting. But there's nothing to
indicate how someone becomes a Town Meeting Member (is Spiegel the only
one who knows it takes 10 nominating signatures to be placed on the ballot?).
No discussion of how Members interact with one another or with their neighbors,
or of their role (must they vote the views of their constituents, or should
they make their own decisions?). There are no instructions for getting
something on the agenda and no indication of whether non-members can attend.
There's not even a list of Members. Some of this may be buried elsewhere
on the website, but I never found it during my hour of clicking and searching.
I had more luck of sorts on the
TAB's website, which does have a Town Meeting menu item. Especially
useful was a search of past TAB articles, which turned up several critiques
of Town Meeting's apparently sorry state. Ruth Dorfman's columns were
particularly helpful in clarifying Town Meeting's growing irrelevance
("a rubber stamp for the Board of Selectmen"). Dorfman endorsed Brookline
Future Search's efforts to reduce the Selectmen's role at Town Meeting
and enhance substantive interaction. Future Search's conclusion that "Today's
Town Meeting in Brookline is not being used as a forum for debate and
discussion of the myriad of issues facing the town" demonstrates the watering
down of citizen participation when form replaces substance.
Fortunately, some Town Meeting Members aim to fix things. But until a
notice in last week's TAB of two scheduled workshops (February 17th: getting
articles onto the Warrant; March 8th: understanding the budget process)
there's been nothing reported about the recreated Town Meeting Members
Association since one hopeful article last fall.
Giving up on the web, I finally went to Town Hall to see what I could
learn. At the Clerk's office I found a Citizens Guide to Town Government
written by the League of Women Voters, which doesn't add much detail to
what's on the website. The Selectmen's office had a Town Meeting Handbook
to orient new Members to meeting procedures. And it does explain how to
propose an article for the agenda, using arcane procedures seemingly designed
to limit rather than enhance debate (thus the need for a workshop).
More exciting was the first edition of the Town Meeting Members Association
newsletter, which described their planned public meetings and other efforts--including
updating the outdated Town Meeting Handbook and putting more information
on the town website. I wish the Association luck in making it easier not
just for Members but for all residents to have input. To do this, of course,
they'll have to bypass those who'd prefer restricting discussion to those
already in the know.
If the Association doesn't succeed in making Town Meeting more user-friendly,
we should consider recreating direct democracy. We can't all fit in one
room, but with private and public Internet connections we can all log
on, debate our views, and make our own decisions. Brookline could join
cities and states across the country now experimenting with online voting--so
long as we incorporate extensive debate and discussion. I'm not a big
fan of the Internet age, but a Town Meeting that's representative rather
than direct may no longer be necessary.
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