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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Make Participation Count

Dennis Fox

June 26, 2003

I'm still mulling over how we make decisions in Brookline. Is our Representative Town Meeting/Selectmen/Boards-and-Commissions system as good as it can be? Can we improve our version of representative democracy, maybe even transform pieces of it into meaningful participatory democracy? How much resistance to change reflects satisfaction, and how much fatalism, indifference, or despair?

One thing is clear. Many residents appreciate our system even when they criticize specifics. Sometimes they repeat one variation or another of Churchill's line: "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the 'worst' form of Government except all those others that have been tried from time to time."

Perhaps this conventionalism explains why grumbling about individual decisions, about particular office holders, or even about the corrupting influence of too much money rarely extends to the system itself. If only we elected better people, it's often thought, or tinkered a bit with procedures, our system would really shine. There's remarkably little consideration that shedding preconceived notions might enhance our version of democracy rather than destroy it.

Stanley Spiegel wrote last week that conscientious residents who make an effort to learn the system can have an impact. All it takes is time, planning, and persistence. Indeed, our system often works effectively enough for residents with organizational smarts who have the motivation to pursue a topic, the time to organize meetings, and the confidence to lobby Town Meeting members, Selectmen, and other decision makers.

Many Brookliners do have these advantages. In a town with above-average incomes, a large proportion of two-parent families, and activist expectations, residents pack meetings and debate for hours. They often leave feeling that they've been heard. For them, good government often reigns.

Two qualifications come to mind.

First, even if our system works effectively for most, it leaves out too many. Rosy averages mask enormous variability. Residents less tied in to town institutions often make less money than those accustomed to having an impact. They're more likely to rent rather than own (more than half of Brookliners rent, though you'd never know it from a typical meeting audience) and to live alone or with temporary housemates. They're less often white and more likely to be young adults and relatively new to town.

It's easy to dismiss this unrepresented majority. Not democratic, perhaps, but efficient.

Second, those who do have the leisure, the childcare, and the knowledge to show up sometimes overestimate how well the system works even for them. Just because someone leaves a meeting feeling they've been heard doesn't mean their concerns will be addressed. So much emphasis is placed on giving people a hearing that sometimes we don't notice when decision makers ignore whatever testimony we make them sit through.

Jim Conley offered an example in his column last week: the joint School Committee/Selectmen appointment of Henry Warren to fill a School Committee vacancy. I don't know Warren, and I'm happy to believe he's the best of the nine candidates. But someone in the know told me long before the interviews that -- as Conley noted -- Warren's appointment was predetermined.

Another example is the Transportation Board, which frequently hears residents plead for changes in parking rules that make continued residence miserable for some and impossible for others. Board members listen, sometimes patiently and sympathetically, as residents who don't own their own driveways recount hardships caused by the overnight parking ban and the two-hour daytime limit. Yet in the four years I've paid attention, the board has done little more than say either there's nothing they can do or they're studying the issue.

Two months ago, pressed by residents objecting to increased parking enforcement on uncrowded residential streets, the board finally held a hearing on the two-hour limit (still ignoring the overnight ban). Members seemed divided about whether change is needed, and since then the issue has languished. Co-chair Fred Levitan tells me they won't address it until the fall -- when they may schedule another hearing.

Can Brookline create institutions that respond better to all its residents by facilitating democratic participation in important decisions? I don't know. Let's find out.

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Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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