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Look who’s not here

With attendance often anemic, is town meeting growing out of fashion?

By Rich Fahey
Globe Correspondent / January 3, 2010

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Some have hailed it as the purest form of democracy in action. But is the town meeting form of government - a quintessential fixture in New England for more than two centuries - finally showing its age?

In a number of communities south of Boston, many say yes.

While the town meeting - either open to all local registered voters, or comprising elected representatives - continues to be the dominant form of local government in this area and the state as a whole, two communities south of Boston have abandoned it in the last decade, another will do so tomorrow, and three others are also considering moving away from it.

Critics say town meeting doesn’t move quickly enough when decisions must be made, and that increasingly complicated issues and federal and state mandates require a degree of professionalism most town meeting members don’t have.

Meanwhile, unless there is a burning issue on the town meeting agenda (called a warrant) to draw voters, many communities are being forced to lower quorums just to be able to do business.

Jean Kopke, town clerk in Avon, said the small bedroom municipality north of Brockton lowered its quorum from 100 to 75 voters a few years ago, after struggling with chronically anemic attendance.

“I think voters just got tired of sitting around for hours and calling up their neighbors and daughters,’’ Kopke said, referring to last-minute efforts to drum up a quorum.

Tomorrow, the town of Randolph will officially move from town meeting after 216 years, swearing in an elected town council that will oversee the increased responsibilities of Town Manager David Murphy. It held its last meeting on Dec. 16, in a ceremonial session with costumed actors portraying the first town meeting members. The switch-off follows neighbor Braintree’s, which ended a 214-year history of town meetings when it elected a mayor and town council in 2007. Weymouth, which has had some form of town meeting since 1641, abandoned the format in favor of a mayor and town council in 2000.

Murphy says it’s about time that increasingly urban Randolph made the move. The town meeting, he said, is geared more to the 19th-century pace of life than to that of the 21st century.

“You have to have a legislative body that meets more than once or twice a year,’’ said Murphy, the town’s former executive secretary, who was selected by the nine-member Town Council to be town manager.

“Government has to be able to appropriate money when needed or deal with zoning changes in a timely manner. The old system was a disincentive to getting work done that needs to be done. We have an $80 million corporation with 600 employees and volunteers.’’

He said moving away from elected boards in favor of department heads with authority to conduct business will allow services to be delivered more efficiently and quickly.

Other area municipalities are considering changing their governments in hopes of achieving such results.

In April, Bridgewater voters will choose between a modified version of their current system of town meeting, board of selectmen, and town manager, or a change to a town council/strong town manager form of government similar to Randolph’s. (See related story on page 6.)

“We more or less followed the same process Randolph did,’’ said Ed Ivaldi, chairman of his town’s Government Study Commission. He says research done by the commission shows that open town meeting government becomes inefficient for a community with a population much over 12,000. Bridgewater has more than 25,000 residents.

Residents in Easton are also looking at a proposal that would move that town to a town council/town manager form of government, but one under which most town boards would continue to be elected. The town manager would oversee all departments and have broad authority on hiring, and the town council would be able to appoint members of boards and committees.

Voters in Sharon, meanwhile, will consider whether to adopt a hybrid form of town meeting this spring, as part of a town charter that would change the way proposals (called articles) come up for town action.

Under the proposed charter, a nine-member steering committee consisting of five precinct representatives and four at-large members would be selected and given authority to make decisions that would be final unless appealed by residents and brought before Town Meeting. The proposed system in effect would be a combination of the typical elected, or representative, town meeting and open town meeting.

“There is a perception in town that there are problems with the way government is run,’’ said Charter Commission chairman Andrew Nebenzahl. “We have great talent, but there’s been a disconnect between decision-makers that led to a pattern of not addressing long-term problems or doing long-term planning.’’

The proposed charter would also reduce the number of elected offices in town, with more officials appointed by selectmen; create a long-term planning committee; establish an office of town administrator and give the office most of the day-to-day power of running the town; and change the number of seats on the School Committee from six to seven to conform to state law demanding odd numbers.

Voters will be asked to accept or reject the charter in a special election on May 18.

Elsewhere, the town meeting appears likely to stay.

Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, says he doesn’t see the switches in government south of Boston marking a sea change - although he concedes it is becoming more challenging for communities to get a quorum at town meetings.

“These changes do work in cycles,’’ he said. “With a difficult economy and residents having other priorities such as working additional jobs or more hours, it’s more difficult to find volunteers to serve on boards and people to attend town meeting.’’

But Beckwith said the system in most parts is working and communities are trying to tighten it up to make it as efficient as possible.

He said of the 351 communities in the state, 298 have the traditional board of selectmen and town meeting, with an administrative assistant to take care of day-to-day issues; 40 communities have a mayor and town council; seven have a town manager and a council; and three have a so-called “strong mayor’’ and city council. Three others - Cambridge, Lowell, and Worcester - have a ceremonial mayor with no operational power, with the real power lying with a city manager and a city council.

Beckwith said a trend that has become apparent is the professionalization of municipal government, with more and more power going to a town manager or administrator.

“More and more selectmen are determining policy, not managing,’’ he said.

Beckwith said the plethora of state and federal regulations and the “extremely difficult’’ procedures for purchasing, procurement, and construction, along with the complexities of dealing with unions and personnel issues, have made it all but impossible to have a manager who is not trained in the field.

The town meeting, in communities that operate under the format, still has the power to move and mobilize voters when an issue strikes. In Westwood, 1,124 voters - about 11 percent of the town’s eligible voters - turned out for a June 2007 special Town Meeting over the proposed Westwood Station mega-development, which has since stalled in the economic slump.

In West Bridgewater in June 2008, 708 of 4,719 Town Meeting voters - about 15 percent - turned out on a very hot evening to debate the rezoning of Lincoln Street for a shopping center.

But then there are the towns that have had to lower quorums.

Raynham did that in May, dropping the quorum from 75 voters to 50, a number that represents just one-half of 1 percent of the town’s 9,188 voters. Several times in recent years, meanwhile, Abington has had to continue town meeting sessions after failing to make a 150-voter quorum.

Naida Parker, town clerk in Rochester, who is an unabashed supporter of the open town meeting, says she is sorry that some communities feel the need to abandon a longstanding system of democratic governance.

“It’s a shame what we’re doing to ourselves,’’ she said. “It’s sad we’re giving up so much of our power when so many people don’t have that power.’’

Rich Fahey can be reached at faheywrite@yahoo.com.