At the annual 2011 town meeting, the town’s legislature of which all voters are members, passed Article 39 that called for a semi-annual state of the town meeting similar to a format that Lincoln uses. The article was non-binding and had been submitted by resident Dan DePompei.
In the roughly two years since the articles passage, no progress had been made by the Board of Selectmen to implement the forum. Hopefully, that is about to change based on a board meeting two weeks ago.
Implementing a state of the town forum is an important part of improving town wide communication and getting the legislature better educated prior to town meeting. The challenge today is that the format of town meeting and many of the other town committee meetings are not particularly conducive to give and take discussion with members of the legislature. Town meeting is especially notorious for this given tight time limits, a sometimes emotional hall, and the complexity of some of the articles presented. From complex budgets to regional authority agreements, capital expenditures, and governance changes, it is nearly impossible as a resident to feel prepared to vote on the issues at town meeting.
You could attend all the various committee meetings prior to town meeting, ask the questions needed, then arrive at town meeting more educated. But the time commitment required to do this would make this close to impossible for most households.
At town meeting, in addition to the warrant articles that are presented, there are also issues not presented that impact voters in the hall. For example, can you really vote favorably for the Sudbury Housing Trust funding if you have doubts about their plans for 40B development in town or their paid settlements with contractors whose agreements they have broken? What about confidence in SPS budgets given the issues at SPS over the past year? What is going on with LS and the Lincoln funding model? What about teacher’s contracts? Having an open discussion unencumbered by Robert’s Rules would help clear the air for many issues while also providing needed information for residents to make informed decisions at town meeting. Such was the basis for Article 39 when presented in 2011.
Article 39 was based in part on Lincolns’ solution to this problem which was to implement a state of the town forum where top issues in the town were discussed in an open meeting. Lincoln's town forum, moderated by the selectmen, starts with each town committee listing their top concerns on sheets of paper around the auditorium. Residents arriving at town forum vote used yellow sticky notes to vote the issues they want to discuss. After about 45 minutes of presentations by the selectmen, the balance of the meeting is open to discuss the issues prioritized by the town residents.
You can watch the Lincoln Town Forum from 2010 here. Watch at minute 2:00 where Lincoln discusses options to pull out of the regional agreement with LS due to Sudbury funding woes. While this was an important topic in Lincoln, it was never discussed in Sudbury.
Two weeks ago, I appeared before the BOS on a citizens petition to understand:
• If the BOS felt they had implemented Article 39 (they had not implemented it)
• If there were any reasons why we could not do it (none surfaced at the meeting)
• How to implement Article 39
You can watch the back and forth between me and the selectmen here starting at minute 11:00.
What is the next step? I am off to Lincoln with Town Manager Maureen Valente to meet with their town manager to understand more about Lincoln’s meeting. There is an agenda item on the selectman’s calendar to discuss the findings Tuesday, Feb 26.
With all the articles that have the potential to appear at Town Meeting, including, a revised push for a police station, a state of the town forum prior to town meeting could go a long way in making sure all of us are ready to cast informed votes.