Town Meeting Voters Reject Some Attempts To Improve Turnout & Participation At Future Town Meetings

WILMINGTON, MA — The Wilmington Inhabitant Bylaw Review Committee put forward several articles at this year’s Annual Town Meeting in an attempt to improve turnout and participation at future Town Meetings.

Town Meeting voters did not support some of these proposed reforms.

Voters, for example, soundly defeated Article 48. Had Article 48 passed, all articles would have been taken up in the order they appear on the warrant, with random selection being eliminated.

“When we used to go by the numbers, people wouldn’t come to Town Meeting, their friends and neighbors would call them when their article was coming up, and then we’d get an influx of people that would arrive, vote the article in, and then leave. By going to random selection, you all to stay here… It’s the only way to keep people here… With cell phones, no one would show up here. We wouldn’t even be able to get a quorum,” said resident Joanne Shukis, who noted she’s only missed one Town Meeting in the past 63 years. “If you care about how we spend your money — and I’ve spent a lot of your money, trust me — tell people to come to Town Meeting.”

“I’ve been going to Town Meeting for 30 odd years…. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said former Selectman Frank West. “If people are going to attend Town Meeting, they’re going to attend Town Meeting… We have a good system for those that are here for the entire meeting or the bulk of the meeting, it seems to work.”

“The reason for the randomness is not only to prevent people from showing up when they know to show up, but what it does is make you have to stay,” said Finance Committee member Leigh Martinson, who noted motions to reconsider could always be made later on in the meeting and re-votes could take place. “If you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound at Town Meeting.”

“Every 10 years, we have a Bylaw Committee that reviews all the bylaws. I was on the Committee that established the random selection around 30 years ago and we’ve been doing it ever sense,” said Finance Committee member Bernie Nally. “The purpose is to get people in and stick around for the entire meeting. It’s one day in the year that you spend some time at Town Meeting and spend a lot of money for a lot of different things…. We’re having the same discussion we had 30 years ago, but I like the random selection because it does force people to stick around.”

In response to a question from a first-time attendee, Town Moderator Rob Peterson explained that the Board of Selectmen would choose the order of the articles when approving the warrant.

Former Selectwoman Suzanne Sullivan saw both sides of the argument, but opted to support the committee’s recommendation to eliminate random selection.

“In today’s world, you can still pack Town Meeting today because people have cell phones. Just have 1 or 2 people watch at home and flood town meeting because of cell phones. It’s not like it was in the old days,” remarked Sullivan. “The other argument for this article is that people often say they would have come down for a particular article but were not going to sit there for 10 hours for all the articles. Do you want people to participate in any way that they can do it, or do you want to tell people that if you want to participate, you have to sit here for 10 hours? I’m willing to try this way. The way we’ve been doing it for years isn’t really working or creating participation.”

Selectwoman Jomarie O’Mahony thanked the Town Inhabitant Bylaw Review Committee for their work and hoped they’d continue the discussion on how to improve Town Meeting even after some of their proposals were defeated.

“We want to save this form of democracy, but there’s a lot of challenges faced doing it this way,” said Selectwoman O’Mahony. “It was wonderful to get a quorum at 9am today, but here we are talking about the last article at 3:46pm, and we don’t have a quorum anymore. When we have a 7-hour Town Meeting, it lends itself to this.”

Voters also defeated Article 47, which would have taken the budget vote up as an omnibus budget, rather than department-by-department, in an attempt to streamline what can often be the meeting’s longest article. Voters can still decide to do this by a vote on Town Meeting floor, but it will not be the default option.

Voters did support Article 46, permanently changing the start time of Annual Town Meeting from 10:30am to 9:00am. Non-controversial Article 49 — clarifying that Town Counsel opinions involving attorney-client privileged material be filed with the Town Clerk’s Office but not to be disclosed — was also approved.

While Selectmen did not support a majority of the Bylaw Review Committee’s recommendations, the Board chose to not even place two of their recommendations on the warrant for Town Meeting voters to decide.

Back in January, Selectmen voted 2-3 not to endorse an article calling for the elimination of quorum to start Town Meeting.

Selectmen also rejected an article that would have given the Board the discretion each year to set the date of Town Meeting on any Saturday in April except the final Saturday. The intent was Selectmen could review the calendar each year and select the date that would avoid the most conflicts — school vacation week, Easter, Holy Communion, etc.

Selectmen, instead, opted to craft their own article which would have moved Town Meeting to the last Saturday of the month and the Town Election to the Saturday immediately before that.

School Committee member Jay Samaha spoke out against the article, noting both the Town Election and Town Meeting would fall during School Vacation Week under the proposed change. He argued voter attendance and participation would decrease, not increase, as a result.

Former Selectwoman Suzanne Sullivan was “deeply disappointed” in the Selectmen’s recommendation, noting the town had already tried those two dates and decided to move away from them nearly a decade ago. She said the article would send the town “backwards” and certainly lead to a decrease participation, which was the exact opposite of the Inhabitant Bylaw Review Committee’s original intent.

Town Meeting voters overwhelmingly rejected this article (Article 45) — 98 to 9.

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