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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Restructuring for Town Democracy

Dennis Fox

June 12, 2003

In the wake of Town Meeting, where our Selectmen diligently ignored accusations of pro-development bias, I re-read Jim Conley's suggestion that converting Brookline's form of government from town to city would shift officials' allegiance from business to residents. Then I read Stanley Spiegel's response, defending town government's "competence and professionalism." Both columnists make useful points, but neither fully persuades.

Conley's right about needing some kind of change. Our representative Town Meeting system doesn't represent all residents, and the Board of Selectmen's competent professionalism too often is filtered through a business-first lens. We should take seriously Conley's documenting of business-interest campaign contributions, his discovery of sloppy, misleading, and missing campaign finance reports, and his critique of committees that inhibit dissent.

However, although becoming a city might be more efficient, it wouldn't fix a major deficit: lack of truly effective participation in town decisions.

Spiegel, who insists the glass is 98 percent full and thinks town government is well-managed and representative enough, says becoming a city would make matters worse. His prediction may be accurate but his percent seems a bit inflated. Although Brookline forums do attract crowds, for instance, I'm still waiting to see one that accurately reflects town residents' age, race, and socioeconomic diversity.

On the other hand, I'm unenthusiastic about one of Conley's major points. He thinks Brookline's minimal voting numbers would escalate if we elected a mayor and city council rather than town meeting members and selectmen. Like Spiegel, I'm not sure that's so. In any event, I've never understood the virtues of merely persuading people to vote.

Unlike Spiegel, who thinks most nonvoters are happy with the status quo, I suspect a significant number assume, generally correctly, that voting won't affect their lives. Despite Brookline's many wonders, for example, not all residents believe our schools are perfect, our diversity sufficient, or our parking laws fair and rational -- especially those who are less wealthy, less white, and less old than the people who count.

When traditional decision makers and the respectable citizens they represent shrug off such concerns, dissenting residents are more likely to keep quiet or move away than make waves. Maybe some who Spiegel dismisses as "transient" would stick around longer if we paid them some mind.

The last time I suggested at a meeting that we solicit input from newer residents, renters, and Asians and Asian-Americans, someone told me we're better off when long-time residents make town decisions. I suppose that depends on what one means by "better."

Participation is hard to elicit in a town too big for a real Town Meeting. As we saw last month, a three-evening meeting for 240 representatives plus Selectmen and the Advisory Committee focuses on getting through an agenda rather than facilitating discussion.

One alternative is more grassroots input outside the meeting room. I doubt I'm the only Brookliner who'd like to hear more directly and frequently from the people who ask for my vote, and I don't mean getting more self-serving newsletters or slick election brochures.

Why don't we require Town Meeting members to hold precinct-wide meetings -- not just to educate the public about relevant issues but, even more important, to hear from residents which issues should become relevant and which new solutions might make sense? Neighborhood meetings could clarify what concerns residents who are unlikely to approach representatives directly.

Precincts should be smaller, too, increasing the chance residents know, and frequently interact with, the people who represent us. Voting for strangers who promise to look out for our interests isn't really sufficient, regardless of which slate endorses them.

Even precinct-wide email discussion lists, with full Town Meeting member participation, would be better than nothing.The Town Meeting Members Association, which has considered some of these issues, should take seriously Conley's point that "installing one or two new voices at Town Hall will make little difference in establishing new leadership. Only fundamental change within the entire system of governance will do that." That significant reform almost always requires institutional change rather than personnel replacement is a lesson TMMA members, and political activists more generally, should remember. Otherwise, the Association may someday end up with no Town Meeting to try to reform.

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Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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