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Brookline Newcomer

Town Meeting needs a boost

Published in the Brookline TAB

February 24, 2000






When Stanley Spiegel urged residents to run for Town Meeting two weeks ago, I realized how little I've learned about our highest legislative body since my 1998 arrival. So I headed to Brookline's newly expanded website to find out more. Unfortunately, the site doesn't say much. As I eventually realized, Town Meeting's minimal web presence may accurately reflect its current role in town government.

The town's official website has buttons to click on for things like a calendar of town meetings, departmental contacts, and information about the Selectmen (complete with photo). But there's no Town Meeting button. You'd think there'd be an easy way to find out about the town's central decision maker, the voice of the people. But no.

I finally discovered that if you click on Town Information, and then on Government, and then scroll down past the history section, you reach three short paragraphs describing Town Meeting. But there's nothing to indicate how someone becomes a Town Meeting Member (is Spiegel the only one who knows it takes 10 nominating signatures to be placed on the ballot?). No discussion of how Members interact with one another or with their neighbors, or of their role (must they vote the views of their constituents, or should they make their own decisions?). There are no instructions for getting something on the agenda and no indication of whether non-members can attend. There's not even a list of Members. Some of this may be buried elsewhere on the website, but I never found it during my hour of clicking and searching.

I had more luck of sorts on the TAB's website, which does have a Town Meeting menu item. Especially useful was a search of past TAB articles, which turned up several critiques of Town Meeting's apparently sorry state. Ruth Dorfman's columns were particularly helpful in clarifying Town Meeting's growing irrelevance ("a rubber stamp for the Board of Selectmen"). Dorfman endorsed Brookline Future Search's efforts to reduce the Selectmen's role at Town Meeting and enhance substantive interaction. Future Search's conclusion that "Today's Town Meeting in Brookline is not being used as a forum for debate and discussion of the myriad of issues facing the town" demonstrates the watering down of citizen participation when form replaces substance.

Fortunately, some Town Meeting Members aim to fix things. But until a notice in last week's TAB of two scheduled workshops (February 17th: getting articles onto the Warrant; March 8th: understanding the budget process) there's been nothing reported about the recreated Town Meeting Members Association since one hopeful article last fall.

Giving up on the web, I finally went to Town Hall to see what I could learn. At the Clerk's office I found a Citizens Guide to Town Government written by the League of Women Voters, which doesn't add much detail to what's on the website. The Selectmen's office had a Town Meeting Handbook to orient new Members to meeting procedures. And it does explain how to propose an article for the agenda, using arcane procedures seemingly designed to limit rather than enhance debate (thus the need for a workshop).

More exciting was the first edition of the Town Meeting Members Association newsletter, which described their planned public meetings and other efforts--including updating the outdated Town Meeting Handbook and putting more information on the town website. I wish the Association luck in making it easier not just for Members but for all residents to have input. To do this, of course, they'll have to bypass those who'd prefer restricting discussion to those already in the know.

If the Association doesn't succeed in making Town Meeting more user-friendly, we should consider recreating direct democracy. We can't all fit in one room, but with private and public Internet connections we can all log on, debate our views, and make our own decisions. Brookline could join cities and states across the country now experimenting with online voting--so long as we incorporate extensive debate and discussion. I'm not a big fan of the Internet age, but a Town Meeting that's representative rather than direct may no longer be necessary.

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