It’s time to admit that Andover Town Meeting doesn’t work.
After sitting through the first night of Town Meeting May 6, where 400 citizens approved the $145 million town budget, there is no other conclusion that can be reached.
During Town Meeting, many questions are asked. Some questions are thoughtful and probing — but they should be asked at the appropriate committee meetings prior to Town Meeting. Many questions are barely relevant, and some questions are not even questions, just expressions of opinion or concern, which are often inaccurate or misleading. The process does not lend itself to thoughtful, informed debate — it is much too unwieldy to allow real discussion.
This year, we were forced to consider budget amendments that were not well thought out or even legal. Even more dangerous, because there were only 400 voters present, we nearly passed an article to remodel the Ballardvale fire station that had not been completely researched or vetted, despite opposition to the article by the selectmen, Finance Committee and the town’s fire station location committee — the people who have actually studied the problem.
Our founding fathers designed our national government as a republic, with elected representatives, rather than a democracy — and our Town Meeting is proof of their wisdom. A budget of $145 million should be approved by people who have carefully considered the issues, not the uninformed group of us that attended this Town Meeting.
And democracy doesn’t work if the citizens are not engaged in the process. Not enough people attend to make Town Meeting a valid expression of the will of the town. By the third night of Town Meeting, less than 250 people were voting. And many people, including me, work evenings and are completely disenfranchised because their job prevents them from being able to vote.
Instead of proudly patting ourselves on the back for having the world’s largest Town Meeting, perhaps we should ask if all the other towns have figured out the truth — there’s a better way.
A good solution would be an elected Town Meeting, like many other towns use. If each precinct had 20 Town Meeting representatives, there would be 180 voters, enough to assure all viewpoints being expressed. These elected representatives would be responsible for attending selectmen, School Committee and Finance Committee meetings so that they would actually be well informed about the decisions they are making. They would have time to accept voter input, research the answers to voter questions and just provide more informed, responsible decision-making. And, we would reduce the current risk that a small, organized minority of voters can get their agenda passed at a poorly attended third night of Town Meeting.
Maybe we don’t talk about changing Town Meeting because we think everyone else in town thinks it’s just fine the way it is. Well, I think Andover Town Meeting needs to be improved. We deserve better, but it’s up to us to speak up and call for changes.
32 Karlton Circle