April 5, 2007

Representative Town Meeting is Broken (in Framingham, anyway)

Last week's election offered stunning proof that Framingham's representative Town Meeting form of government is broken. And I'm not even talking about the 14% turnout rate.

What's truly frightening is that two-thirds of the town's precincts couldn't even field enough candidates to fill available openings.

People no longer want to serve.

This problem used to be mostly limited to a few South Side precincts which had a chronic lack of candidates. But it's growing, and spreading.

When I wrote an article last year about Town Meeting's woes, about half our precincts couldn't find enough people interested in putting their names on the ballot.

This year, the problem was critical. Twelve of 18 precincts couldn't get enough volunteers on the ballot even to fill available openings. In fact, voters in only 4 precincts had an actual choice -- that is, a contested race.

In my own Precinct 5, where I won election in the early '90s in a six-way race for four seats, we only had three names on the ballot (there are four openings per precinct each year). The declared winner for the final spot had just 6 write-in votes!

There was an unfilled vacancy on the ballot in Precinct 1, 9, 10, 12 and 14. Even worse, other precincts had only one or two names: 8, 13, 15, 16, 17 and 18.

Let's face it. If you get "elected" in a race where there are more openings than candidates, it's hard to claim you have support of the electorate. A greater sense of civic responsibility than your neighbors? Probably. But under such conditions, it's entirely possible to "represent" only yourself and your own interests.

Fortunately, many of Framingham's Town Meeting members are conscientious and care deeply about the community, and I admire their willingness to put in long hours and serve. But the fact is that they're not accountable unless they choose to be. And accountability solely at the discretion of our elected officials is no accountability at all.

Supporters of our current form of government argue that it allows people to be much closer to their government than a town council with just a few members. What they're missing is that when you have a local council of 15 or 20, it's a lot more likely you know how those councilors are voting than members of a body of 200+. Representative Town Meeting is not like Congress. We cannot read about our reps online or in the newspaper.

If you excluded people active in government, I'd wager that the vast majority of voters last week couldn't name even half of "their" Town Meeting representatives, or how those representatives have voted on just two issues of importance to them, or even their reps' general political philosophies. Nor is there anywhere you can go to research such information before an election, since almost no Town Meeting votes are recorded. Even if you choose to attend Town Meeting sessions it's almost impossible to see how "your" 12 reps vote amidst a sea of 100+ hands or chorus of yeas and nays.

As for vacancies, there are many reasons why people don't want to serve, and it's not all about laziness. Town Meeting is a major commitment of time on weekday evenings. Career responsibilities (long hours, evening hours, business travel) knock out some people. So do family responsibilities (child care, elder care, kids' evening activities), evening classes and other activities. And, frankly, many don't see the point in spending so much time to be one among 216 in a part-time legislature where authority is also spread out among so many other places (Selectmen, Town Manager, etc.) I heard there were many applicants for the most recent opening on the Finance Committee. Why? There, no doubt, people thought the much greater amount of time they put in would be worthwhile because of the effect their actions would have. Also, the number of openings was more reasonable for the size of the town.

Smaller units of government don't necessarily make for happier citizens. In a study comparing Long Island, N.Y. with two counties in Northern Virginia, "On Long Island, 36 percent of people feel it's 'very or somewhat easy to get help from an elected official.' In Northern Virginia, 45 percent of people felt that way," according to a report in the Long Island newspaper Newsday.

Yet Long Island (2.8 million people) has 439 units of local government; those Washington, D.C. suburbs (1.3 million) have just 17. For schools, there are 127 small local Long Island districts vs. just three much larger ones for the D.C. suburbs, so L.I. voters are in theory much closer to their representatives.

"More than 70 percent of Northern Virginians rated the value they get from property taxes as excellent, compared with fewer than 50 percent of Long Islanders," the study, by the Center for Government Research, concluded.

Talk to some people in Framingham about the need for change and they look at you like you want to evict their grandmother from her home. But "it's our history!" is not reason enough to keep a form of government that the town has outgrown. Representative Town Meeting no longer serves the large, complex community we've become. A precinct of 3,500-plus people is too large these days to be a "neighborhood" where everyone knows everyone else with a minimum of effort, yet way too small to have its own media following the activities of a dozen reps. It's the worst of all worlds.

A town council with both neighborhood and town-wide councilors makes much more sense. But if we can't get that passed, at least dramatically slash the number of Town Meeting members so that it's easy to keep track of each precinct's members and most voters have a choice at the polls. The idea of a representative legislature isn't supposed to be that anyone who wants to serve gets a seat. That's what open Town Meetings are for. It's supposed to be that reps actually represent the voters, which is impossible when most voters have no meaningful choice and no idea what their reps are doing.

How many more years are we going to watch participation decline before we acknowledge it's time for a change?

1 comment:

  1. As a relatively new addition to Framingham, I was surprised to learn of its elected town representative form of government - which I mostly discovered poking around on town websites curious about my new neighborhood. I still find it a bit confusing; it is unclear to me what the responsibilities of the town meeting members are, what the expected demand on their time is, or how they are supposed to engage and represent their neighborhoods. As a new resident in northern Framingham, I have looked up the names of my town meeting members but have had no contact from them .. and am not sure what issues I would raise with them if the for some reason contacted me. Guess my first question would be, "what does town meeting do."

    The warrants posted for the town meeting were also a bit confusing to me. I vote very consistently but was not really aware of the recent election. When I read the warrant posted to the town website (notified by a very late email announcement) it was unclear to me if the warrant and issues were to be voted on by the town meeting members or if this was a general election.

    Clearly my responsibility to figure out those answers - I accept that - but I think in general communication of the purpose, the demand and the function of the town meeting structure is quite poor, especially considering its unusual nature.