Many Believe Town Meeting Is Broken. Does The Town Council Study Committee Have The Answer?

JohnCarl McGrady •

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Nantucket could soon hold its final Town Meeting.

At the 2023 Annual Town Meeting, voters endorsed a proposal by Curtis Barnes to form a Town Council Study Committee tasked with drawing up a warrant article that could facilitate the transition to a town council form of government. Now, after a year of research, the committee is considering beginning work on a new charter for the Town. If adopted at Town Meeting and the ballot box, this could provide for a town council government, under which a group of elected town councilors would act as the legislative body, replacing the one-person, one-vote Town Meeting. Under the town council system, a town manager would serve in an executive capacity.

“I think we've got a pretty good sense of the pros and cons of various forms of government,” committee Chair Joe Grause said. “I'm not saying [town council] is perfect but I just think Nantucket has gotten too big and too complex for Town Meeting.”

Not everyone on the committee is fully behind the transition to a town council. Some remain sympathetic to the current town meeting system. However, Grause believes the majority of the committee members feel that town meeting has grown too slow, inefficient, and unrepresentative and a town council should be considered.

“There are a range of opinions on the committee but a good slug of folks on the committee think it is something we need to consider,” Grause said. “I just think town meeting is too big an imposition on too many people's time…the reality is for a lot of working people on this island, who I'm sure have opinions about all sorts of issues on the warrant, committing 10 or 12 hours over three nights, it's just too hard.”

Grause highlighted the small number of voters that attend town meetings— and their demographic makeup, which skews far older, whiter, and more wealthy than the island at large.

“Nantucket strangely enough has a better than average turnout at town meetings,” he said. “But it quickly shrinks. You end up with two or three percent of the population voting on, in some cases, serious issues. But people don't have the time, they don't have babysitters.”

Grause hopes the committee will be able to present an article at Nantucket’s 2025 Annual Town Meeting in the spring. In the meantime, they are looking for public input.

Some proponents of Town Meeting contend that shifting to a town council form of government would dilute the power of voters. Grause disagrees.

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

“I know people will say it's a tradition here on Nantucket and you're taking away my vote but I don't think that's really true. The citizens can still be very influential,” he said. “Do you want to go and spend three or four nights in an open town meeting where a minority of the town gets to debate and vote on issues or do you want to have a more professional, well-informed group of councillors who represent all of the island?"

Grause also does not believe that shifting to a Town Council would significantly increase tax rates, even though councilors would likely be paid full-time salaries.

“The town of Nantucket's budget is $175 million,” he said. “It might affect your taxes, but it will be in the pennies.”

Last month’s Annual Town Meeting provided supporters of a town council system with another argument when confusion over the vote on Article 59 reportedly led some voters to vote against the zoning amendment they meant to vote in favor of.

Charter boat captain Brian Borgeson summed up the feelings of many voters following that episode when he spoke on Town Meeting floor.

“Town Meeting was set up when there was 400 of us in here,” Borgeson said. “There were 1,400 people here in four different rooms trying to figure out what we were voting on. I know people who are staunch proponents who voted no because we thought we were voting on ‘grandfather’ versus ‘legacy.’ Going forward, we need to figure out, whether you’re for or against anything, how we’re going to legislate and govern this town.”

In a follow-up poll on Nantucket Current’s Instagram page that asked if people agreed with Borgeson’s assessment that the Town Meeting system is “completely broken,” 85 percent voted in agreement, with just 15 percent disagreeing. There was a total of 2,287 votes.

“That was a really unfortunate situation,” Grause said of the vote on Article 59. “When passions get up on an issue like that and people are upset it just makes it very, very hard to have a civil debate.”

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