Citizens Participation

Nov 20, 2011

At the Board of Selectmen meeting last Tuesday, November  15, Chairman Cruz declared that the Citizens Participation portion was for announcements only, and that if citizens had questions then they should see the Town Administrator on Thursdays between 3 and 5 p.m. While Chairman Cruz is certainly within his rights to chair the Board of Selectmen meeting as he sees fit, this decision raises several concerns.


First, there are many citizens of Wareham who cannot visit the Town Administrator on Thursdays between 3 and 5 p.m.  It is a very limited 2 hour time frame which falls within “normal business hours” when many citizens are working. Forcing them to endanger their employment by taking time off to ask questions of their town government is unfair at the least. Many towns, particularly those with limited Friday or Monday operating hours, have implemented open hours one evening per week to accomodate those townspeople who work at full-time 9-5 jobs. Perhaps Wareham might consider this, and the Town Administrator might also offer an open-door time during these extended hours.


Secondly, there is an assumption that the question pertains to the day-to-day matters of the town, which is the Town Administrator’s responsibility. In the cases where the question does not pertain to the day-to-day administration of the town, what is a citizen to do? If the answer is that all questions should be presented to the Town Administrator who will then determine if it is something that should be brought to the attention of the Board of Selectmen, then who is working for whom? This is not a duty of the Town Administrator’s position as set out in the Charter or the By-Laws. Is it a wise idea to put that power into the hands of someone who works for the Board? How then will the Board be able to fairly judge the job performance of the Town Administrator? And what are the options to the citizen whose question is not answered by the Town Administrator?


Thirdly, the relegation of the Citizens Participation portion of the Board of Selectmen meeting to simply announcements may be a violation of the constitutional right of free speech. By denying citizens the opportunity to ask questions of the Board of Selectmen in a public, open-meeting forum, the Board of Selectmen may be stifling the democratic process and denying citizens their rights of participation and free speech. Yes, at times the Board may feel some embarassment in the case where they do not have an immediate answer to a question. It is those very questions that are the most valuable because they often point out a matter that has escaped the attention of the Board.


The recent question regarding the pending Board of Sewer Commissioners is a perfect example. It has been over a year since the voters approved the formation of a separate Board of Sewer Commissioners and nothing has been heard about it since. The warrant article was sent to the appropriate state personnel for approval, but little or no follow-up was conducted by the town. This raises other questions about who is responsible for seeing that warrant articles approved at Town Meeting are implemented, but that is not the topic of this article.


The point is that the question raised by a citizen and posed to the Board of Selectmen was entirely appropriate, and even necessary to draw attention to an ignored issue. The Board may have felt a bit of embarassment about this but that is an emotional reaction to a failure in their process. As in business, decisions should not be made based on emotional reactions. Decisions by the Board of Selectmen should be made based on facts and fair, unemotional judgement. Rather than simply denying citizens the right to ask questions directly to the Board, the Board should be examining their process to determine when, where, and how they “dropped the ball” on this warrant article. They may find that the source of the problem is also the source of many other problems . . . information tracking. They may also find that the solution to this problem . . . a database of decisions/votes both by Town Meeting and by the Board itself.  . . would help not only themselves in the exercise of their duties, but also the citizens who might find the answers to their questions in such a database, as well as future Boards who otherwise are destined to struggle under the same handicap of having to dig through piles of paper and years of history to answer their own questions.


We are all bound by decisions that have been made in the past. It is important to know and understand those decisions as part of the process of making good decisions today. And good decisions today will lead to a better future. Stifling the democratic process by denying citizens the right to ask questions directly of the Board of Selectmen in an open meeting setting is not a good decision, in my opinion. It leads to apathy and non-participation. A democracy is made stronger by having more people participate and that participation is encouraged by respect for the opinions of others and allowing them to speak, and the overall result is improved by being able to leverage the skills and abilities of those who participate. If the Board would reconsider their decision to limit Citizens Participation to simple announcements, then they will be taking a step in the direction of positive change and a better future.