Citing backlash, some urge shift to secret ballots

By Matt Gunderson
Globe Correspondent / February 22, 2009
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New England town meeting is supposed to be the epitome of democracy, where citizens can stand up, speak their minds, and vote the way they want - out in the open, just like in a Norman Rockwell painting.

But a number of Stow residents say things have gotten so abrasive at times that they want certain Town Meeting votes to be taken by secret ballot. They say some residents have been verbally upbraided for the way they have voted on contentious issues.

The Concerned Citizens of Stow, a group with about a dozen members, is pushing a bylaw that would require paper ballots on all appropriations of $250,00 or more, according to member James Ogg.

He said the change would help restore faith in the Town Meeting process. Currently, some people are worried about raising their colored voting cards, the customary method in Stow, to register their positions, he said.

"When you deal with issues that are contentious, there are some people that utilize the openness of Town Meeting to attack some people," said Ogg. "It's not a pleasant scenario for people who have to deal with it."

Ogg said members of his group, especially those who are seniors, have received scathing insults after voting against large-ticket spending at Town Meeting. He declined to go into specifics.

"Many of us have gotten comments to the effect that, if you can't afford to live here, then move," said Ogg.

He said he has heard anecdotes about children of neighbors verbally tussling over their parents' differences of opinion while playing in the backyard: "It's really as silly as that."

The hope is the new voting measure, which the group has proposed for the Town Meeting warrant in May, would help increase participation by residents, said Ogg. "If people don't feel their vote is going to be public, then hopefully they will participate more," he said.

Selectman Stephen Dungan said there appears to be widespread support on his board for paper ballots. He said he was aware of two ugly incidents where citizens were berated over Town Meeting votes, although he declined to go into specifics.

"I think the consensus is that we are distressed that voters are taking action against other voters that don't vote the way they want them to," said Dungan.

But Carole Makary, a former selectwoman, said she thinks the paper ballot initiative is "nonsense." She said she was not aware of anyone, besides herself, being harassed after a Town Meeting. Makary said she was yelled at by a local senior for her views on a school construction project a few years ago, but described it as an isolated case.

"There have been many issues that provoke vigorous conversation. I don't think there have ever been any negative repercussions other than what I experienced."

Makary said she thinks that the proposal is a veiled attempt by some to cloak their thoughts on controversial issues, not a response to harassment, and that Town Meeting is based on sharing opinions in public. "I think that's sort of the beauty of Town Meeting," she said. "At the end of debate, you raise your card."

While some have raised concerns that paper ballots also might slow the pace of Town Meeting, Dungan said, he noted the town clerk's office has devised a way to speed the process. As they enter Town Meeting, residents would receive tear-off ballots that could be collected and counted in minutes, he said.

If Stow adopts a secret ballot for Town Meeting, it would join a small minority of towns in the Commonwealth. Of the 75 communities his group surveyed, Ogg said, three had a paper ballot system for Town Meeting. Berkley holds a secret vote on purchases that are $500,000 or more, while spending requests of $250,000 or more trigger the paper ballots in Granby and Manchester-by-the-Sea, he said.

Dungan said the threshold figure for triggering the paper ballot in Stow is still under debate.

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