Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

Opinion

June 5, 2014

Times calls for changes to Town Meeting

Editor, Townsman:

The recent town meeting demonstrated more clearly than ever why this institution is obsolete and needs to evolve with the times. When a small, well-organized cadre can swing a key vote against the welfare of the public, the urgent need for change is clear.

We might ask why, in a town of so many thousands of potential voters, a special interest coterie of a couple of hundred could make such a difference. The answer lies of course in the time constraints that precluded many voters from attending the meeting. Immediately eliminated are safety and emergency workers as well as nurses and others on critical night shifts. Similarly excluded are the many parents who do not have ready child care available, least of all for four consecutive evenings. Also consider the situation of the typical worker in the modern economy: as likely as not, his/her workday may last 10 hours or more, perhaps with a couple of hours of commuting tacked on. Few jobs, except perhaps some government sinecures, function on the classic nine-to-five basis these days. And no, taking vacation time is not the answer, because such time is likely limited to two weeks per year and is subject to the far greater priorities of family events or just plain recovery from arduous or enervating toil.

This de facto disenfranchisement, no doubt marginally unconstitutional, has been noted repeatedly in letters to the Townsman. Last year there was even a courageous editorial calling for the end or modification of Town Meetings (which, unsurprisingly, was followed by a passionate defense from the town moderator). Indeed, the poll results reported on May 15 showed that 62 percent of respondents were for modification toward electronic participation or absentee balloting, and, additionally, some favored outright abolishment.

There is an additional option we can consider: Keep the Town Meeting with the moderator role essentially as is, but remove all voting on taxation and financial matters to a standard voting day soon thereafter. With the possibility of visiting the polling station at whatever time their harried schedules permit, people would have a better chance to exercise their right to have a say in the disposition of their hard-earned tax dollars. Moreover, standard voting would adhere to that hallowed hallmark of democracy, the secret ballot, whose current lack is another regrettable deficiency of our Town Meeting concept.

Yes, the days when the citizenry could fit into Farmer Jones’ barn and, after a few hearty choruses of E-I-E-I-O, within an hour finish voting on the year’s critical issues — say, a new horse hitching post — are long gone. It’s time for our government procedures to join the 21st century.

P. Lapsa

Wild Rose Drive

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