Opinion: The absurdity of Town Meeting
To the Editor:
Tuesday night. The gym of the Wareham High School is pretty much filled. A great number of Wareham voters have flocked to the town meeting and have occupied more than 90% of the seats. There is only one issue on the agenda, whether the town should acquire the Little Harbor Golf Course Property from its current owner, thereby preserve open space, but also the operation of a golf course. The meeting begins with the usual prelimenary instructions by the town moderator, followed by a comprehensive presentation of the project. Finally, the highlight of town democracy. Voters procede to the microphone to comment on the project or ask some questions. And isn’t this what the town meeting and the high voter turn-out is all about, to hear what different people have to say and thereby look at a $2.3 m project from different angles?
But not even an hour into the diuscussion, when a number of voters are still in the waiting line for the mike, the usual happens. Somebody wants to go home and asks to move the question. No, not just anybody, a selectman who was heavily involved in planning the project. Why does he want to curtail what citizens have to say about it? No discussion about the motion. That is not foreseen in Robert’s Rules. Instead, immediate vote on whether one should suppress any further debate. And the person who brought the motion is not alone. Some 95% of the congregation, happily and relieved, raise their ballot cards to shut out continuing citizen participation. After all, it is almost nine and one too wants to go home. So, no further discussion about what the main purpose of the town investment really is, to preserve open space or perhaps to use the conservation argument in order to preserve a golf course for the many golfers among the town voters present. No discussion whether the town picks the right priorities for their inhabitants. Why invest in a golf course and not in neglected Wareham Avenue in Onset, as one voter suggested? But the town meeting is not the place to discuss those issues; it is a place to have totally developed projects just receive the final blessing by the voters.
The meeting quickly approves the main article, and then the Wareham voters have done their civic duty. Like church goers who feel obliged to attend the service, but do not want it to take much longer than half an hour. Happy faces leave the meeting room. It feels like in a schoolyard when classes are out. That was the citizens’ participation in a town meeting. Everybody keeps up the illusion of being important as a voter, but most are not really interested in debating the issue(s) more thoroughly, the least the town officials.
A few years ago, there was a discussion in a town meeting, by the way an absolutely unrepresentative body with a lot of Medicare recipients, few professionals, no people who have to work at night, hardly any young parents and barely anybody under 30, whether the town charter should be changed by replacing the town meeting by an elected representative body. The majority of the speakers in the debate objected, arguing that they would not want to be deprived of their participatory rights. And after some discussion? Exactly, somebody asked to move the question.
Manfred H. Wiegandt, Wareham
Manfred H. Wiegandt