WILMINGTON, MA — Wilmington’s Inhabitant Bylaw Committee recently announced its recommendations on how the town can improve its Annual Town Meeting to increase declining voter attendance.
Town Clerk Christine Touma-Conway, Chair of the Bylaw Committee, outlined six proposed changes for the Board of Selectmen to consider:
#1) Each year, the Board of Selectmen would be given the discretion to set the date of the Town Meeting on any Saturday in April prior to the final Saturday.
“The Selectmen can look at a calendar and set a date after determining when school vacation week, Easter, Holy Communion, and other conflicts,” said Touma-Conway. “By creating the ability to move the date around, you can maximize the amount of people that can come by avoiding conflicts.”
Selectmen would need to select their preferred Saturday in April each year by October.
On a related note, the Selectmen are also being asked to shift the Annual Town Election to the last Saturday in April. This, in and of itself, is not a significant change, as the Town Election currently occurs on the fourth Saturday in April.
What does represent a change, however, is the sequencing as, under the proposal, the Annual Town Meeting would come BEFORE the Annual Town Election. The Annual Town Election is currently held one week AFTER the Annual Town Meeting.
#2) The Town Meeting’s start time would shift from 10:30am to 9am.
“The Town Meeting would start earlier in the day for everyone involved, so people aren’t there until 4pm, 5pm or maybe 6pm,” explained Touma-Conway.
#3) The budget at Town Meeting would be taken up and voted as a whole after a presentation from the Town Manager.
The Committee is encouraging Selectmen to meet with the Town Manager, Town Counsel, and Town Moderator to consider revamping how the budget is presented.
“Under the proposal, the Town Manager would present an overall budget presentation and highlight major changes,” said Touma-Conway. “Then the budget would be taken up as a whole, rather than department by department as is customary.”
#4) Random selection of Town Meeting warrant articles is eliminated.
“Random selection’s time has come and gone with the advent of electronic communications,” stated Touma-Conway. “And if you just go with a straight set of articles — town-sponsored and then petitioned articles — with no random selection, you do away with the part of the meeting that takes time to pull the numbers.”
#5) The quorum requirement at Town Meeting is eliminated.
“Studies have actually shown that if you do away with the quorum requirements, more people actually go to the meeting because no one wants a small number of people to decide important matters for the whole town. Tewksbury, for example, recently did away with its requirement and saw a slight increase in attendance,” explained Touma-Conway. “Also, sometimes we’ve had to wait, say, 45 minutes for the meeting to start. Eliminating the quorum will keep things moving.”
#6) Keeping certain Town Counsel opinions private.
The Bylaw Study Committee is also recommending clarifying language be added to the bylaws involving the requirement that Town Counsel opinions given at Town Meeting must be made part of the public record. The Committee felt Town Counsel’s opinion on a matters related to bylaw interpretations should remain a matter of public records, but Town Counsel’s opinion that involve a “true attorney-client relationship” shouldn’t be put on file with the Town Clerk’s Office.
A Reminder Why We’re Here
Bylaw Study Committee member John Romano reminded the Board of Selectmen why they formed the committee in the first place.
“The Committee is presenting various changes to Town Meeting because you were concerned not enough people are coming to Town Meeting. We came up with six ways to encourage people. Yes, you can pick apart little nuances on each. They each have a little bit of a drawback. But each year, you’re getting less and less people. You need to try something different,” said Romano. “You can’t be afraid of making some changes as [Town Meeting] isn’t working. There’s virtually no one at these Town Meetings and we’re making million dollar decisions. I think people aren’t attending because they feel it takes too much time.”
Selectman Jonathan Eaton found himself agreeing with much of the proposed changes.
“I agree with 90% of the recommendations,” said Eaton. “They’re all towards the goal of increasing voter participation.”
Eaton expressed hesitation, however, on holding the Annual Town Meeting prior to the Annual Town Election.
“I don’t want Town Meeting to turn into campaign stumping,” cautioned Eaton. “This would open up the possibility of that happening.”
Selectwoman Jomarie O’Mahony agreed that moving the Town Meeting prior to the Town Election is a “double-eged sword.”
Romano responded that it’s ultimately up to the Town Moderator to make sure someone doesn’t campaign at the meeting. He added that Town Moderator Robert Peterson Jr. served on the Bylaw Committee and didn’t see an issue with the change.
Selectman Kevin Caira threw cold water on most of the proposed changes. He did not support a floating date for the Town Meeting, preferring a set date. He felt a 9am start time would be too early, and preferred 9:30am. He would rather keep the budget vote department-by-department for transparency purposes. He supports random draw. He feels a quorum is necessary.
Town Clerk Touma-Conway noted that the quorum and is only required to start the meeting.
“A lot of times people will walk in, sign in, and then leave just so we can start the meeting. It’s not a constant quorum,” revealed Touma-Conway, noted there were votes at the last Town Meeting with only 60 votes cast.
“I’m a big fan of moving the start time up. A lot of folks not a fan of the 10:30am start time,” chimed in Selectmen Chair Greg Bendel.
Selectman Mike McCoy, who served as the board’s representative to the Bylaw Study Committee, praised Town Clerk Christine Touma-Conway, noting she “really knows her stuff.” McCoy said he believed the proposed changes would lead to an increase in attendance at Town Meeting.
The Board of Selectmen will determine which proposed bylaw changes will be voted on at the 2020 Annual Town Meeting at its next meeting on Monday, January 27, 2020, after receiving another update from the Bylaw Study Committee. Voters would then need to approve the articles at the Town Meeting for the changes to Town Meeting to go into effect.
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