Different seasons arrive year in and year out at more or less preordained times.
There are the natural seasons, of course, a reflection of how the Earth is tilting at any given moment in our hemisphere.
Then there are the man-made seasons, which come in varieties including religious (Christmastime), sports (football, baseball) and onerous (tax season).
On Cape Cod and across much of New England, there is Town Meeting season, traditionally held in the spring (although supplemented in recent decades by another Town Meeting in the fall).
And just as any season, natural or man-made, tends to have its time-honored rituals and conversational paths, so, too, does Town Meeting season.
The season won’t have gone very far when people begin to calculate, and comment on, how few people actually are making decisions in a construct that offers a nearly pure model of democracy.
The percentage of registered voters, let alone residents, who turn out for and participate in open Town Meeting traditionally tends to be tiny. Earlier this month in Mashpee, 2.6 percent of the town’s registered voters turned out for the Annual and Special Town Meetings.
The percentage turnout for town elections tends to be better, but not overwhelmingly so. The town election last week drew 12.5 percent of Mashpee’s registered voters.
The mathematical calculations provide a quick, seemingly undeniable case that democracy continues to grow weaker and weaker—and that perhaps the time has come to shift governance away from Town Meeting.
Still, Mashpee and other Cape towns should think twice about any inclination to give up the gavel.
True, the vast majority of residents, even voters, in Mashpee do not participate in Town Meeting, despite the meeting’s power to legislate how the town runs.
And out-and-out apathy about local government no doubt can be easily discovered in a large chunk of the local population.
But motivations and behavior also can be more complicated and subtle than that.
Consider the following:
- The cost of housing on Cape Cod and the wages that are paid on the Cape immediately create a yawning gap for many individuals and families. Accordingly, a lot of people are working a lot of hours. Some may have to work during Town Meeting. One parent, especially a young one, might have to take care of the children while the other parent works. Or both may be too exhausted to go to Town Meeting and get up early the next morning to go back to work.
- A number of individuals and families are leading full lives that leave little or no time for any sort of committed involvement in local government. Maybe they participated before, maybe they’ll participate again, but they’re not participating now.
- Let’s be honest. For many people, Mashpee is a bedroom between lengthy commutes. They could just as soon live in a different place. Their lives are elsewhere.
- Town Meeting historically worked well in small communities composed of several hundred, or perhaps a thousand or two, people. At present, about 14,000 people live in Mashpee.
If a large percentage of Mashpee’s registered voters came to Town Meeting, the town literally could not accommodate them. No indoor spaces in the town are large enough. You’d have to have a massive outdoor gathering, akin to a kind of mini-Woodstock, to make certain everyone had a voice.
And if all had a voice in such a gathering, how quickly could the business of the town be conducted?
Here’s another way to look at it: As long as most people stay away, New England Town Meeting effectively provides the best of all possible local governance worlds.
Town Meeting offers the best opportunity of Government By Those Who Care: who are interested enough and willing to make the time to govern their community themselves.
When people care about something, they show up and express themselves. That goes for meetings of the board of selectmen, of the school committee, of the planning board. And it definitely goes for Town Meeting, where any voter possesses as much electoral power as a selectman or a school committee member, and has just as much right to speak.
Mashpee soldiers on: the children are taught; the police and fire departments maintain public safety; the public works department keeps the roads clear; the health department ferrets out unhealthy situations.
Local government could always work better, but it certainly could work worse. If and when they wish, people can participate in that government. That’s what matters.