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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Democracy, Brookline Style

Dennis Fox

June 6, 2002


For three evenings last week, I watched Brookline's semi-annual Town Meeting. The action on cable TV got boring fast, so I headed to the high school auditorium to see the players live. I came away both impressed and frustrated.

It was good to see so many participants paying attention to what's going on in town. Even those who were reading magazines or playing solitaire to get through the intermittent dullness looked up when necessary.

Knowledgeable Town Meeting Members, familiar to anyone who participates in local organizations, asked pointed questions about the sorry state of everything from sidewalks to affordable housing to the schools' anti-drug DARE program. Equally knowledgeable selectmen, department heads, and other officials either answered questions clearly or artfully dodged them, in both cases showing they're on top of the issues and in charge of the town.

So local democracy's wheels rolled smoothly over the bumps. There was enough debate and laughter, head shaking and nodding, to reassure everyone in the room that Brookline remains in good hands: theirs.

Still, there were a few glitches. Most obviously, the 240 Town Meeting Members aren't that representative. They're older than Brookline's average, of course -- I saw lots of balding gray heads from where I sat, back in the non-member section.

They're also whiter. Although one in every five residents is a person of color, I never needed all the fingers on one hand to count the non-white members. The disproportionate whiteness paralleled that found at most other town decision-making meetings.

It's not just younger people and those of color Town Meeting doesn't fully represent. Because Brookline's too big for a true town meeting, our representative system overlooks the shifting concerns of most residents

If we really wanted broad participation, we would institutionalize communication among residents as a whole and between residents and the representatives they elect. At election time, candidates I don't know seek my vote, but after the election I never hear from most of them. I can call them if I have a concern, but that should be democracy's fallback plan, not its basis.

Some conscientious Town Meeting Members actually hold community meetings. These should be required periodically in every precinct -- not just at election time or for unusually controversial issues. A precinct meeting a month or two before Town Meeting would help residents learn what's ahead and let them give some guidance to their reps. Members might also establish precinct-based newsletters or email discussion groups to elicit ongoing interaction and feedback. The goal should be widespread deliberation and input, not just representation of the loudest.

There are other ways to boost democracy if we want to take that goal seriously. For example, to expand Town Meeting's size we could build a bigger auditorium, or use computer links to hold meetings in several places simultaneously. Expensive and cumbersome, sure, but we'd do it if broader participation was a priority.

Even if we're stuck with 240 members, instead of 15 from each of 16 large precincts we could elect 5 from each of 48 precincts, or 1 every few blocks. With smaller, neighborhood-based precincts, more members would know the neighbors who elect them. More residents would express their concerns as part of daily life on the street.

Town Meeting could also meet more frequently, in shorter sessions, to enable more discussion by ordinary members rather than just by selectmen who have entirely too much to say and too much time to say it. The current packed agenda leaves little room to press officials on their statements. Instead, members -- even nonmembers -- could submit written questions in advance, and get written answers before the meeting. Each topic at the meeting could then begin by addressing inadequate responses, rather than letting those responses be the last word.

Two years ago, I noted that the town website had no link to Town Meeting. Today, although the button for Selectmen remains easy to see, there's still no direct link to the legislative voice of the people. You have to dig.

Just like Town Meeting Members have to dig, and then build a better structure, if they really want to represent those whom they claim to represent.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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