Town Meeting Is Broken. Here's How To Fix It

Martin McKerrow •

To the editor: Town Meeting is a broken form of government and, on a long-term basis it needs to be replaced with a more responsive form of Town government. The issues of Nantucket seem to be too large in number and too complex for the “ultimate form of democracy”. How democratic is it? Turnout tells the story. Article 59 had almost 1,500 voters, Article 60 only a short time later had about 500 less, Wednesday had just shy of 500 attendees and the final session only around 300. I believe the voter count is around 10,000. And not only are only a small minority of our citizens voting on decisions, but the age and the diversity of the audience is nothing like that of our citizens.

Town Meeting is too long and largely dominated by a handful of voices. The issues we face have become more complex. There is little that can be done to the format of the meeting and the number of warrant articles that might be presented, but I think there are opportunities to improve it, shorten it and increase attendance. I see three fundamental problems:

  • The Town does not adequately communicate the meaning and intent of warrant articles.
  • The attendees often do not understand the articles– in large part because of the first problem and in some cases because of self-interest. They speak too long, and frequently there is not a lot of diversification in who speaks. Unless you are a Town Meeting “junkie” it is hard to follow what is being said.
  • As the town has grown, the issues have become more complex, the warrant articles more numerous and, as a result, there is just a lot more to go through.

The debate on Article 20 demonstrated all three of these issues. We spent close to an hour on, in my view, a very straightforward article. A lot of this was because the purpose of the article was not clear.

So, I have some suggestions:

  • All warrant articles should have a short, non-legalese explanation of what they are and why they are being submitted. Citizen-submitted articles should be required to carry a similar explanation that has been reviewed and agreed to by Town Government.
  • The speaking time limits need to be enforced. You can say a lot in two minutes and way too much in five. Prior to the meeting, it should be communicated that if you plan to speak, and particularly if you are calling an article you should have timed your comments so that they fit in the allotted time.
  • I’d suggest that for all “major” articles – 59 on Tuesday – the Moderator first ask for a non-binding “sense of the house” vote. I think this article was decided before the meeting began. A non-binding vote would show how big the mountain that proponents or opponents had to climb. It should shorten debate.
  • If it has already been said, don’t speak. The Moderator needs to tell them they are being repetitive and ask them to stop.
  • There is probably little you can do about the number of citizen warrant articles presented, but I hope that they are reviewed by town government when submitted. Judgment should be made as to their relevance or importance and submitters should be asked if they would withdraw inappropriate articles.

I recognize that to do these things would require town staff and the town’s committees to put additional time and effort into Town Meeting. I also recognize that they may fly in the face of the traditions of Town Meeting. But if they are in any way adopted, we’ll have a much better product. I would suggest that the Select Board let the citizens know that they too are unhappy with the length of Town Meeting and that they hope citizens will support change.

I’d add that my hats are off to all who work to present and manage Town Meeting, it is an overwhelming job, and in no way do I discredit is being done. I just think we need to do more.

Martin McKerrow

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