Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Town Meeting: Pinnacle of Participatory Politics--or The Terror of Tiny Towns?

the light at the end of the tunnel--or just someone's headlights?

Yes, we made it again, as the sign at the High Horse brewery congratulated us Town Meeting diehards. Or did we?

That is, we got through another annual Town Meeting, and it didn't go on for an inordinate amount of time: 22.5 hours vs. 27 last spring, so I am told (though by most reckoning, it could have been at least a day shorter). Admittedly, we were not dealing with multiple complex pieces of zoning legislation, as in some past years, so the increase in "efficiency" might in part just reflect the fact that our tasks were more modest.

But one has to wonder about the fate of the institution. As Amherst residents know, complaints about Town Meeting arise as regularly as the spring flowers and then fade with the same regularity--and yet this year somehow feels different.

One item at last night's Select Board agenda was the annual Town Meeting debriefing: a chance to reflect on our performance and the overall tenor and success of the endeavor.

Our main concerns--above all, wasted time and "incivility"--were not new, but they seemed to acquire new urgency.  The coming adoption of an electronic voting system might do a good deal to alleviate the former. The cure for the latter is less obvious. We expressed our regret that, both in formal remarks on warrant articles and in audible background chatter, Town Meeting members repeatedly, and often without reprimand from the Moderator, violated the rules of the body (Section V D, pp. 17-18 [33-34]) by imputing motives to individuals and in particular impugning Town staff, elected officials, and members of citizen boards. At Town Meeting, we heard the repeated insinuation that Town boards and staff were somehow colluding with developers at the expense of the common weal. Only slightly more subtle was the implication that those "at the front tables" (i.e. Select Board, Finance Committee, Planning Board) were somehow the adversaries of Town Meeting rather than partners in a system.

Town Meeting: attendance and attention uneven
It is a shame. A mere four years ago (see the next post), I thought the various factions, having survived a contentious "charter" referendum that sought to eliminate Town Meeting, had accommodated themselves to political coexistence. I am no longer so sure. The discontent expressed by some members as well as citizens at large is the highest that I can recall since that last Charter vote in 2005. Again, it may dissipate, but it is a worrisome sign.

The division of opinion over the merits of Town Meeting was amply expressed in two recent editorials.  I won't try to analyze the arguments here and will instead just offer excerpts with links to the full pieces. Read and judge for yourselves.

In the first, longtime Town Meeting member Jim Oldham defended the institution against the charge of inefficiency and obstructionism:

The wisdom of democracy borne out at Amherst’s Annual Town Meeting

This year’s Annual Town Meeting is a great example of effective democratic government. . . . While many individual members have maintained either pro- or anti-Town Hall positions, the body as a whole produced more complex outcomes, neither acquiescing to, nor rejecting out of hand, all proposals placed before it. . . .

Motions to end debate rarely contribute to better decisions . . .

Worst are suggestions, such as heard early on from a member of the Finance Committee (an appointed body intended to serve Town Meeting), that members shouldn’t second-guess the work of staff and committees. That actually is exactly the job Town Meeting is charged to do. Fortunately the majority of members continue to embrace that responsibility, as recent sessions demonstrate.
(full text: Amherst Bulletin, 20 May 2015)

In response, Professor Ray La Raja and graduate student Wouter Van Erve of the UMass Political Science Department urge residents,

Don’t romanticize Town Meeting democracy in Amherst

Thin deliberative democracy. Oldham argues that Town Meetings should have lengthy debate. He argues further that it is the job of members to “second guess” the work of policy committees. Both these views are contradicted by what research says about effective representational bodies. The most deliberative American legislatures are highly “institutionalized.” That is to say, when dealing with complex issues — especially those that divide a community — legislative bodies tend to divide the labor and defer to the expertise of policy committees. It is here where dialogue and compromise take place before a bill is sent for a full vote. Most of the time, the “debates” that ensue before a full legislative vote are purely symbolic because a winning coalition has taken shape beforehand.

Debates in Town Meeting appear largely symbolic rather than deliberative. Persuasion and compromise need to come earlier in the process. Otherwise, Town Meeting is simply a forum to affirm individual preferences and make sure allies outnumber the other side.
(full text: Amherst Bulletin, 3 June 2015)

Funny thing is: these pieces were in many ways a reprise of a similar exchange a year ago:

Ray La Raja and Wouter Van Erve:

How representative, really, is Amherst Town Meeting? 

Our data suggests that Town Meeting in Amherst is fairly unrepresentative both descriptively and substantively.

This would be less disconcerting if we had confidence that residents could effectively hold their Town Meeting members accountable. . . .

. . .Town Meeting elections lack even the most basic information that would help voters hold members accountable. Most residents don’t know who is running, what they stand for, or how they voted in previous sessions. So how does the voter make a decision? . . . .

In Amherst, those who vote tend to know those who are running for office. Our analysis shows, not surprisingly, that these voters share the same demographic and preference profile of Town Meeting members. In other words, the voters and members run in the same social circles, while non-voters do not.
(full text: Amherst Bulletin,  9 June 2014)

Jim Oldham:

Amherst Town Meeting is independent, not unrepresentative

The Around Town column in the June 13 Bulletin reported on the Select Board discussion of concerns about the length of time Town Meeting took this year and the supposed “level of incivility.” They seem to have overlooked that they themselves instigated the most inefficient use of time and the most uncivil behavior at Town Meeting this spring.

Faced with two citizen zoning petitions that could not be acted on for technical legal reasons, and which Town Meeting would have voted to refer to the Planning Board with little discussion, the Select Board chose instead to advocate for dismissal, an action with no practical benefit but more pejorative to the petitioners, thereby triggering close to an hour of unnecessary debate and several counted votes.

But rather then review the wisdom of that choice, they focus instead on raising general concerns about Town Meeting.

Meanwhile, University of Massachusetts professor Ray La Raja and grad student Wouter Van Erve assert that Town Meeting is unrepresentative (see essay, Page A5), based largely on the claim that Town Meeting members do not reflect the population at large.
 (full text: Amherst Bulletin, 20 June 2014)

The debate is not over. You can be sure that the topic will be back in the news--and maybe even the election booth.

In order to provide some perspective, I thought I would resurrect a few older snapshots of our Town Meeting experience in coming posts.

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