Committee Votes Unanimously To Ditch Town Meeting In Favor Town Council Form Of Government

JohnCarl McGrady •

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Approximately 1,400 voters gathered at Nantucket High School for the 2024 Annual Town Meeting. Photo by David Creed

Nantucket’s Town Council Study Committee last week voted 8-0 to recommend a transition to a town council form of government that would ultimately have to be passed by the voters at a future Town Meeting - setting up a scenario in which voters would decide whether to give up their direct legislative control. Tom Dixon abstained from the vote because of his position on the Select Board.

The committee is the result of a citizen petition passed at the 2023 Annual Town Meeting that instructed the town to form a committee tasked with drawing up a warrant article that could facilitate the transition to a town council form of government. Any charter change would have to be passed at Town Meeting and the ballot box before it could go into effect, a difficult task given that Town Meeting is the very thing the charter would eliminate.

“You have to get the turkeys to vote for Thanksgiving,” committee chair Joe Grause said. “It's going to be a marathon, not a sprint. We have to find opportunities to talk to the people about why town council is a better and more efficient way of managing the town.”

But the first hurdle was cleared with a unanimous vote. This vote does not necessarily mean that all members of the committee support a town council form of government; some may have voted yes to drafting a new charter despite their personal opposition in order to give the citizens of Nantucket the opportunity to decide for themselves. Still, it represents progress for the group, which until recently was divided on what alternative form of government to pursue.

The committee opted to recommend a town manager/town council form of government over other options it considered, including a mayor/town council option and a representative town meeting.

Proponents of a town council form of government argue it is more efficient and flexible, allowing full-time professionals to address the issues facing the island in real-time rather than waiting for often under-informed voters to make decisions once or twice a year at Town Meeting. Town meetings also often have low turnouts, and the voters who do turn out tend to skew older, wealthier, and more white than the town’s voter base as a whole.

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Voters speak out during the 2023 Annual Town Meeting. Photos by Kit Noble

“Roughly 90 percent of our voters and citizens don't have the time, interest, or initiative to come to open town meeting,” Grause said.

Opponents of a town council form of government contend it would reduce the power of voters by shifting the decision-making power to a small group of officials—though those officials would still be elected by the citizens.

Before voters can decide between these competing claims, the committee has to draft the charter, which could take some time. The committee was initially targeting the Annual Town Meeting this past May, but now has its sights set on 2025.

“I would like to answer…that we'll have something ready for Annual Town Meeting 2025 but it's a lot of work,” Grause said. “I think the issue is going to be if we can get all the work done, number one, and whether the Select Board will help us out, number two, and put the article on the warrant under their authority.”

If the Select Board opts to include the article on the warrant with its endorsement, the deadline for submission would be much later than the citizen’s warrant article deadline. The Collins Center, a public management group the committee contracted to help draft the charter, anticipates it will take the committee until the end of the year to finish its work. If that’s accurate, they may have to wait until the next town meeting, whether that is a 2025 Special Town Meeting or the 2026 Annual Town Meeting.

"This system is completely broken," charter boat captain Brian Borgeson said at the May 7th, 2024 Annual Town Meeting. Photo by Kit Noble
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