Will Sandwich continue to hold open Town Meetings, or does a representative Town Meeting make more sense for a town that has grown exponentially in the last few decades?
This is one of the questions that the charter review committee will be trying to answer in the coming months, and it was the main topic of conversation at the group’s most-recent meeting on Monday, August 1.
Currently, Sandwich holds an open Town Meeting where every registered voter in town is welcome to attend and vote on warrant articles.
Of the 16,655 registered voters in town, about 4 percent attended the most recent Town Meeting in May—and that is a higher number than usual.
Monday’s meeting began with Assistant Town Manager Heather B. Harper discussing her experiences with the representative form of Town Meeting during her time as assistant town manager (then acting town manager) in Falmouth.
She said the representative format is effective and oftentimes the elected representatives are more engaged and more informed on the issues than the average voter.
The representative format can also be more taxing on town staff, she said. That is because representative meetings involve having more elected officials in town, more preparation for the meetings themselves, and usually means that more people are contacting town staff to ask questions about the warrant ahead of the meeting.
Also, Town Meetings tend to run longer—sometimes into second and third nights—and the motions made on the floor are longer and more complex.
In this format, Town Meeting members are elected by precinct. In Falmouth, 27 members are elected from each of the town’s nine districts.
While only the elected representatives are allowed to vote at the meetings, the meetings are held in a public forum and non-elected residents may be granted the opportunity to speak to an issue.
However, the idea is that the elected members will have been hearing from their constituents on the issues before the scheduled Town Meeting.
The charter review committee members had mixed thoughts on the matter.
David Sampson, who is in favor of a representative format, wondered if it would be a challenge to fill all of the elected seats needed for a successful representative meeting.
Jonathan Fitch asked if more debate tends to happen at these types of meetings. He said he has been disappointed with how infrequently issues are debated at Sandwich’s Town Meetings.
He asked when the last time a significant debate about the budget occurred at Town Meeting. Susan James responded that it has probably been since the late 1980s, a time when money was tight.
Mr. Fitch said the issues the town might soon be facing are too important to be dealt with by uninformed voters. He said he understands how open Town Meeting was effective when the town’s population was smaller, but that it does not work anymore.
Additionally, he said, people oftentimes will show up to support a single issue on the warrant and leave the meeting once it has been voted on. Mr. Fitch said Town Meeting attendees always seem to be in a rush to wrap up the meetings in under two hours.
Having a representative Town Meeting might be a way to ensure consistent attendance at Town Meeting, Mr. Sampson said. He said that with open Town Meeting, no one has an incentive to attend. If someone is elected and expected to be at a meeting, that person would be significantly more likely to attend because he or she would be held accountable for being a no-show.
He said there is no satisfaction as a selectman to having people come to Town Meeting to vote without asking questions.
“If folks are going to show up to Town Meeting effectively to rubber-stamp, what’s the point?” he asked. “Some folks engage, but not en masse.”
Ms. James agreed, saying that Town Meeting would be more effective if residents were more informed about how town government works. She added that with open Town Meeting, people tend to find reasons not to go.
In a representative format, residents who cannot attend will have someone they can go to with their concerns who will be representing them in their absence, she said.
Kelee Renzi said she is not convinced that the town should go the representative route and that it sounds like having elected Town Meeting members is a way to create another layer of bureaucracy. She said the town already has elected officials who are supposed to be representing the best interests of the town in the select board members.
Her feeling is that Town Meeting is not the time to debate the issues. Rather, those debates should be taking place at the board and committee levels before they get to the meeting, so that people are already informed.
Mr. Sampson gestured at the audience in the meeting room—Candus Thomson, Robert Thomson and selectman Charles Holden—and said that it was representative of the people who regularly attend selectmen meetings.
Mr. Fitch said that he has also never seen a board of selectmen that has taken a stand against a strong town manager. Ms. James took exception to this, saying that members of the board do disagree with the town manager on some issues. However, she said that it is often more effective to work as a team.
“In my own experience, I haven’t seen a challenge to a town manager, at least in open forum,” Mr. Fitch responded.
A Lack Of Understanding
In terms of meeting engagement, Ms. Harper noted how there was absolutely no discussion at the recent Town Meeting before voters passed $3.5 million worth of upgrades at the town-owned Sandwich Hollows Golf Club.
Jim Coogan asked if maybe there was little in the way of discussion because residents had faith that the town had done its due diligence before bringing the issue to voters.
Ms. Harper said that staff had wondered how many people at the meeting did not know anything about the project at all.
The question was also raised about how to create more awareness about how Town Meeting operates, such as offering Town Meeting training. Regardless of which format is chosen for the town, some education initiatives may get implemented, so that residents are more involved when they go to Town Meeting.
Ms. Renzi reiterated that people probably choose not to go to Town Meetings because they do not understand the process, more so than purely not wanting to be there.
Mr. Sampson reiterated that a representative format would eliminate this issue due to accountability.
Ms. Harper said that in Falmouth, there has always been the quorum required to run the meetings because the people elected take their responsibility seriously.
One of the bigger concerns with the representative format was that it would add extra strain on the town staff if every elected representative was reaching out with questions about the warrant articles ahead of the meeting.
The members of the committee expressed that they wanted more time to consider the pros and cons of changing the Town Meeting format.
Ms. James, who came into the meeting feeling like a representative format was the way to go, said she was not so sure after hearing about the nuances that come with that format.
The issue will be revisited in about a month.
One change that was voted on at Monday’s meeting was to change the name of the board of selectmen to the gender-neutral select board. This passed unanimously.
Town Clerk Taylor D. White will be in attendance at the next meeting. One of the issues expected to be discussed is changing the town clerk position from elected to appointed.
Ms. Harper said the work Mr. White does can be complicated and should be done by a professional. Currently, the only requirement to get the job is to be elected.
“We have a terrific town clerk,” she said. “I think it’s a wise time to give that a lot of thought.”
Discussion will also be had regarding the residency requirement for a town manager, with Ms. Harper saying that the town should not limit its recruiting pool.
All changes to the charter will have to be approved by residents at Town Meeting.
The next meeting of the charter review committee is scheduled for August 15.