The Open Town Meeting model of municipal government—where all the voters of the town who attend serve as the legislative branch—has been practiced in Mashpee since the town’s founding in 1870.
That model of government remains ideal for Mashpee but could benefit from technological upgrades, the Mashpee Board of Selectmen said on Monday, November 16, in response to conversations in local social media circles and the community at large that have suggested changes.
“It seemed like there was a misunderstanding of our Town Meeting,” the chairman of the Mashpee selectmen, John J. Cotton, said. “There’s basically two forms of town government, or Town Meeting; one is the Representative Town Meeting and one is the way we have conducted Town Meeting, Open Town Meeting.”
In Open Town Meetings, any registered voter of the town who attends the meeting can vote and contribute to the conversation, whereas in Representative Town Meetings, representatives are elected to vote on behalf of all residents.
Mr. Cotton said Open Town Meetings are the most direct means for the public to participate in the municipal government and are therefore better suited to Mashpee than Representative Town Meetings would be.
“In Mashpee, anyone who wants to speak about something can. All they have to do is show up and speak,” he said. “You get all the facts at the meeting; you get other peoples’ perceptions; it’s live, right then and there; and you can hear from everybody; and everybody has a say.”
On the other hand, with Representative Town Meetings, Mr. Cotton said, “The fact is if you want to speak about a topic you can’t show up and speak at any given time; you have your representative do that for you.”
Selectman Andrew R. Gottlieb said he has heard from residents who are regulars at Town Meetings but who have not attended since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic due to the risk associated with the in-person nature of the meetings.
State law does not allow Open Town Meetings to be conducted by virtual means, though, and switching to another form of government would take time and be disadvantageous to the town, Mr. Gottlieb said.
“I’m sympathetic, but it’s a once in a lifetime occurrence that we can’t really fix,” Mr. Gottlieb said of the pandemic, noting an overhaul of the town’s form of government is a lengthy process. “I have no particular interest in changing our form of government. [Open Town Meeting] is the most participatory, open option that is available to us. Anything else concentrates more power in fewer people by electing representatives.”
Implementing an electronic voting system, however, could speed up the process of tabulating votes at Town Meeting, Mr. Gottlieb said. At present, Mashpee uses a hand count to tabulate votes at Town Meeting.
The suggestion received a warm reception from the other Mashpee selectmen.
Selectwoman Carol A. Sherman noted that electronic voting could make residents less self-conscious about casting their votes.
“A lot of people feel uncomfortable raising their hand on a vote with their neighbor sitting next to them,” Ms. Sherman said.
Selectman Thomas O’Hara said electronic voting “makes a lot of sense.”
Mr. Gottlieb requested that a memo detailing how other Cape Cod towns have implemented electronic voting be presented to the selectmen at a future meeting.
“Not only can we look into it, I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Mashpee Town Manager Rodney C. Collins said.
Elana C. Doyle, a Mashpee resident who helped bring forth the conversations on Town Meeting, said she understands the options for how Mashpee holds Town Meeting are dictated by state law.
“I don’t think that the selectmen really understood the point I was trying to make,” she said. “One of my biggest concerns from hearing from people in the town is the lack of accessibility of Town Meeting.”
Some residents, including parents of young children, people with disabilities or members of the military on deployment, have difficulty attending Town Meeting even outside the context of a pandemic, she said.
“If we’re leaving people out that want to vote, I think that warrants a serious discussion,” Ms. Doyle said.
She suggested that the state Legislature explore new options for how the legislative branch of municipal governments can operate, such as by ballot rather than in-person or by allowing remote participation for some members.