Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

May 30, 2013

Town Meeting should be preserved

The Andover Townsman

---- — Editor, Townsman;

I welcome the new editor to the Townsman, but I feel compelled to respond to her recent editorial in the Townsman. I am troubled by the conclusions she reached about our form of government.

The open Town Meeting in Andover is neither a prop of nostalgia nor an outdated form of governance. It is a remarkable forum in which a voter may be heard by speaking directly to other voters, rather than through the vote of an elected representative.

The small number of voters making decisions on major issues is a frequent criticism of open Town Meeting, local elections, state elections as well as national elections. I believe every citizen in our town votes on town issues, either by their presence at the meetings or by their absence. If a voter chooses not to attend, their absence is a vote to allow those who do attend to make the decisions. Yes, the turnout is often a small fraction of the voting public; it always has been. But the people who do attend have a strong sense of civic responsibility and historically have displayed remarkable collective wisdom.

The smallest number voting at any one time at this year’s meeting, I believe, was 188. The editor would have you all horrified that that small a number would be making decisions on major issues in town. And yet, that number of 188 is nearly double the number in the U.S. Senate who make more far-reaching decisions for all of us and we have no input other than to vote for a senator every six years. Who reading this always agrees with every decision our senators or representatives make for us?

I disagree with the editor’s suggestion that a representative Town Meeting would be a good choice for Andover. We have an elected Board of Selectmen who are very conscientious about the interests of their constituents. Adding another layer of elected representatives would politicize the Town Meeting process. A group of approximately 250 (or less) would be elected representatives and make the decisions for all of us. Special interest groups would get their representatives elected, and everyone else would be prohibited from direct participation in the decisions about our town. I believe the representative model is seriously flawed. It is never better to have someone else think, speak or vote for us.

I would suggest that open Town Meeting achieves voter representation in a much more effective way, as evidenced by the last two nights of this year’s meeting. Constituents from many special interest groups were represented, yet each voter could speak on his or her own behalf.

There are of course ways we could change how we conduct our open Town Meeting. Perhaps budget items should be discussed in a spring meeting and zoning items discussed in a fall meeting. Or we might draw article numbers from a hat, so that voters have to be at the meeting to be present for their pet article. I have suggested to the selectmen and School Committee that we shut down all other activities on town meeting nights so that we aren’t creating a conflict for citizens with other activities in town. More than 30 years ago, the voters decided to end Saturday meetings and elected to go to weeknight meetings. Perhaps that could be revisited.

Yes, we could improve. But end open Town Meeting? Take away the one place in government where any citizen in this town can make a difference? I don’t think that should be encouraged on any level.

Madame editor, how can open discourse and individual choice possibly be holding this community back?

Sheila M. Doherty

Town Moderator