By: Peter Smulowitz
Heading into my first Town Meeting last week, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. I ran for town meeting based on the belief that it is our right and our duty to take an active role in self governing and to improve our community via participation in a vigorous democratic process. But Town Meeting is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Over 200 people (many who work full time) in one room for three and a half hours each Monday and Wednesday for most of May, debating 60 legislative articles (called Warrant Articles) affecting Needham, facilitated by one competent and actually quite humorous moderator (who is always respectfully called Mr. Moderator).
So far we’ve completed two days of discussing the Warrant Articles. The first day involved zoning articles, provided a glimpse into the potential future of Needham town center, and revealed the tremendous amount of work done by the Needham Downtown Study Committee. In a complete change of topic, the entire second day was devoted to debating the future role and perhaps even very existence of Town Meeting. No Town Meeting member actually suggested the termination of this legislative institution. But the very question of whether a “procedures committee” should be permanently dedicated to the improvement of processes and operations of Town Meeting was in part a response to the perception by some that Town Meeting had become a “rubber stamp” for the town’s executive functions. The underlying worry - perhaps the 300 year old institution had stopped serving its purpose.
My first reaction was that this particular debate was a bit bizarre. With so many important issues to discuss, why spend so much time and effort discussing the existence of one committee dedicated to improving and modernizing Town Meeting? After reflecting on this for a few days, I think that this particular debate captures the very essence of Town Meeting. Its existence, and perhaps even its slightly antiquated and rigid customs, is a direct reflection of how democracy sprouted here in Needham in 1711. That’s almost 300 years of town meeting members representing this community.
There is no doubt that Town Meeting needs to “change” with the times to stay relevant in an ever-changing modern world. Whether this will happen effectively without a permanent committee dedicated to this cause remains to be seen. But if the passion on display on both sides of the issue is any indication, there will continue to be many people who taking considerable time out of their hectic lives to make sure town meeting is around and relevant for another 300 years.
Peter B. Smulowitz, MD, MPH, is a Needham resident and an Attending Physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, MA and Beth Israel Deaconess Needham campus in Needham, MA.