Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

May 16, 2013

Shine has faded on Open Town Meeting

The Andover Townsman

---- — There’s something that feels innately American about Andover’s open Town Meeting form of government. The framework, which allows every registered voter in town a say in its legislative affairs, is not only woven into the fabric of Andover, but finds its roots in New England’s earliest Puritan settlements.

The fact that it has existed in Andover for more than 350 years is an immense source of pride, especially among those who value and seek to preserve the town’s history.

That’s admirable, but at what point does holding on to the past start holding the community back.

Andover is no longer made up of primarily farmers and laborers who stayed close to home. In fact, there’s only one working farm left in town. The community has grown, changed and adapted just as the world around it has changed and adapted. Yet one aspect of town government continues to remain stuck in time.

That’s not to say Town Meeting has not made many sound decisions. Or that it can’t make plenty more in years to come.

But the fact is that in a community with a population standing at 33,000-plus, having less than 200 people turn out for the third and final night of the Annual Town Meeting last week — when several key proposals were up for a vote — cannot possibly be something the town continues to take pride in.

Nostalgia is fine when you talk about preserving a favorite vista in town or a historic building. But it’s not so charming when it results in a handful of people voting on multi-million-dollar budgets and making decisions that will shape the future design and tenor of the community.

The last time a review of the town charter was conducted was in the early 2000s. The committee at that time saw no need for a change. We’d argue that it might be time to consider revisiting the issue.

Perhaps abolishing Town Meeting might be too extreme. But a representative Town Meeting, in which each district in the community elects a certain number of citizens responsible for acting on their behalf, might be a suitable alternative to the open, all-inclusive framework that exists today.

Over the coming weeks, The Townsman will be taking a closer look at how Andover governs itself, what the alternatives might be and how other communities that have wrestled with the very same issues have chosen to resolve them.

Maybe it remains that the open Town Meeting concept continues to suit Andover to a tee. But we feel it’s worth exploring.

And we encourage your thoughts and ideas along the way.