Denise M. Bronsdon doesn’t think she is the only civic-minded person among the 1,575 active voters and 2,796 residents in Stoughton’s Precinct 8.
Still, she is the only person who completed the requirements to put her name on the ballot — getting 15 certified signatures from voters in her precinct — for one of the nine Town Meeting representative seats available in the precinct for the town election on April 30.
Apathy over Town Meeting isn’t just a Precinct 8 problem. Precinct 7, which has 1,823 active voters among its 2,995 residents, has no one running for eight available seats. Townwide, only 24 residents have come forward to run for 62 available seats. Other seats could be claimed by candidates getting 12 write-in votes or running sticker campaigns, and any seats remaining unfilled after the election could be filled during precinct caucuses, which are held before Town Meeting begins on May 20.
The unfilled seats are a disturbing residue of a 2012 Town Meeting that unfolded over nine sessions, with about 27 hours of debate for 88 articles on the warrant.
Attendance declined dramatically along the way, though it never went below the quorum of 79. After it finally ended, Selectman Robert O’Regan said the process “scares people away” and many members told him they were “never coming back.”
O’Regan and Selectwoman Cynthia Walsh, who has 37 years of service in town government as a member of either the select board or Town Meeting, were appointed to a subcommittee to look into ways to make Town Meeting run more efficiently. They heard suggestions, such as starting on time, limiting breaks, and tweaking the guidelines by which articles are submitted for the warrant. This year’s warrant has 80 articles, a decrease of eight from last year.
School Committee chairwoman Deborah Sovinee said she has tried to recruit parents at PTO meetings to run for Town Meeting, with limited success.
“Our school parents are very busy, and as a result are very underrepresented at Town Meeting,” said Sovinee. “We need all ages, races, genders, and minorities to be represented.”
Some point fingers at Moderator Howard Hansen, a Town Meeting member for 43 years who will be holding the gavel for the 22d time if he wins reelection April 30.
“There are those who think Howard is too deliberate, but when it comes to tricky issues such as a bond issue, if there’s a mistake we’d be back to do it all over again,” said Walsh. “I do know two things: No one runs against him and we get the work done.”
Walsh pointed to two other possible factors: a change in filing deadlines — signatures had to be submitted three weeks earlier than in past years — and the storms in February that prevented people from getting the needed signatures from their neighbors.
Also, after the 2010 census, the town redrew its precinct lines in 2011. Some voters had to switch precincts, and all Town Meeting members had to run again last April, forcing many to run just a year after being elected.
In the past 16 years, Weymouth, Braintree, Randolph, and Bridgewater have replaced their boards of selectmen with town managers or mayors and their town meetings with town councils, and many other towns are having difficulty filling town meeting seats, both at representative town meetings and open meetings.
An article on the warrant for Rockland Town Meeting, which begins May 6, would reduce the quorum from 300 to 150, and the number of voters for Town Meeting to remain open from 150 to 50. Town Administrator Allan Chiocca said Rockland’s quorum is higher than in many surrounding towns.
In November 2012, Pembroke Town Meeting decided to keep the quorum at 150 voters to open a Town Meeting, but drop the minimum to 100 once the meeting was underway. That came after a meeting that had to be adjourned with three articles to go when the number dipped below 150.
If there is a hot issue, people will come. Hingham’s Town Meeting last Monday attracted more than 1,700 voters, who voted 1,354 to 347 for a $4.5 million athletic complex that will include artificial turf and lights for night games at Hingham High. However, the low attendance on Tuesday pointed out an ongoing problem of consistently achieving a quorum, and residents voted to keep the quorum at 300 for the first night of Town Meeting, then drop it to 200 for subsequent nights.
In Stoughton, Bronsdon said that it is a matter of information and education to get more voters interested, and that many residents don’t realize the impact Town Meeting has on their lives.
“I don’t think the fact that the positions are available is publicized enough,” she said. “One of the things I think would help is if town officials and election officials went into the high school to talk about it. Some of the seniors are 18, and they could run for these seats.”
Walsh said she expects many Stoughton residents will come forward with write-in campaigns or to attend the caucuses, and that most or all of the seats will eventually be filled.
“This is where you decide how the town spends $76 million, if the town needs a new dump truck or a fire department will fix up a fire station,” she said.