Sunday, May 11, 2014

Southbridge Town Meeting Petition Is A Fraud

Ken O’Brien

One of the sponsors of the petition to reinstate the town meeting form of government in Southbridge has recently demonstrated on his blog an affection for using common-world definitions in a legal context to support an opinion.

With that in mind, I’d like to invoke the Merriam-Webster definition of fraud as it applies to my opinion of the petition and its sponsors. “Fraud: a: deceit, trickery; specifically:  intentional perversion of truth in order to induce another to part with something of value or to surrender a legal right b: an act of deceiving or misrepresenting:  trick”. 

The biggest deception seeking to part you with your vote has to do with the core claim of the advocates of the town meeting proposal. That claim is featured in a flyer from the group that proclaims, “A Town Meeting form of government will give you, the resident, the ability to vote on issues that affect your town and way of life.”

What is not pointed out is that you will have that ability unless you are employed on a second or third shift or you are willing to miss work to participate. And, of course, there is no provision for an absentee ballot for those who may be unable to attend for any reason that would entitle them to such consideration in other plebiscites.

Otherwise, town meetings will draw disproportionately from three categories of voters; the unemployed, the retired and those who work an 8:00 to 4:00 or 9:00 to 5:00 shift.

Of these groups, the unemployed have an habitually low rate of participation in town government. The retired tend to have the highest turnout rate in town elections. The remaining group, those who work “normal” business hours, constitute the higher income strata in town and also have a high turnout rate in current elections. The latter two can be expected to perpetuate the very same policies and candidates that they have supported in the past. Where, then, do the petitioners get the claim that things are somehow going to miraculously be changed?

Beyond the misleading nature of the claim is the factual evidence of the real-world consequences of town meeting participation. As Dietram A. Scheufele points out in his 2010 paper Modern Citizenship or Policy Dead End?
…attendance in public meetings tends to be low and characterized by significant
selection biases due to lack of interest among many members of the lay public, and
disproportionately higher motivations among small, opinionated issue publics to participate and
express their viewpoints. Historically, this is not too surprising. Even in modern democracies,
world examples of facetoface democracy seldom include the whole electorate. The “New England town meetings, where  registered voters attend mass public meetings to debate and vote on a variety of policy, administrative and budgetary issues” provide a good example. Turnout at annual town meetings in Massachusetts in 1996, for instance, averaged 7.6
percent, a figure which was considerably lower than the average municipal election turnout of
31.1 percent. Over a five
year period, only 5.5 percent of the respondents in a survey of
Massachusetts citizens reported having attended all of the annual meetings. More than half of
the respondents reported having attended meetings “only rarely” or “never”.

These observations are confirmed in additional studies by Joseph Francis Zimmerman in The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action, Santis,  Patterns of citizen participation in local politics: Evidence from New England town meetings. In Annual Convention of the Midwest Political Science Association. Chicago, IL., V.S. de Santis, and T. Renner.  Democratic traditions in New England town meetings: Myths and realities. In Annual Convention of the Midwest Political Science Association. Chicago, IL, and Frank Bryan, “Town meeting”, in, Dictionnaire critique et interdisciplinaire de la participation, Paris, GIS Démocratie et Participation, 2013

So we have demonstrated the first two elements of this fraud, the claim that citizens will have a greater ability to participate and the implied belief that there will be a greater degree of citizen participation.

The third element of this fraud is the lack of openness or transparency by the sponsors of this proposal. How available is the text of the petition as it was submitted to the Town Clerk? All that we get from the sponsors are outlines that tell us what the petition claims to do. I am publicly asking any of them to email me a copy. (I don’t want to have to type it myself from a mailed hard copy for fear of being accused of deliberately misrepresenting it if I make an error). What it actually does could be far different. Many of us are all too familiar with how our existing Charter has been interpreted. In some cases it has been interpreted in ways that directly contradicted what the authors of that document intended. We know that the only legal advice that has been testified to on this petition was in its editing, not in its authorship. So, how full of holes is the document likely to be?

The fourth element of fraud is the failure of the sponsors to respond to detailed criticisms of the proposal. Gus Steeves wrote a lengthy and detailed critique of the document. No partisan of the town meeting proposal has rebutted his specific criticisms. One of the local blogs, authored by one of the sponsors of the petition, failed to address Mr. Steeves’ points specifically. The only reply was an attempt to discredit his motives.

The fifth element of fraud is the constant referral that the sponsors are all about returning control to “the people”. Yet, as Attorney Lauren Goldberg amply pointed out, the petition is so scantily detailed that it will require substantial modification by the State Legislature. But, given the wording of the petition, if it is approved by the Legislature and signed by the Governor, then it will immediately take effect – regardless of how the Legislature amends it. Is this the sponsors’ idea of “local control”? Or, is it, as I have maintained, voting for a “pig in a poke”?

There are numerous other issues that could be raised. For instance, is there any mention of how the School Committee will be constituted?

The reality is that we have a proposal from a group that is dissatisfied with town government, but who have not advanced any realistic solutions.

How is their plan going to change the economics of water and sewer services? How is their plan going to guarantee that the five selectmen are going to pursue policies any different than nine councilors? How is a town meeting going to exercise better oversight or greater knowledge of the town budget than the current system? Why do they believe that a Town Administrator will not actually end up exercising as much real power as a Town Manager? 

The final element of outright fraudulent deception is the statement in the above flyer that, “…the Town Council has been unable to control spending.” The Town Council may have been “unwilling” to control spending, perhaps, but it has not been “unable.” They are far more “able” to control spending than some of the groups I’ve mentioned above will be “able” to attend town meetings. 

No matter what system you have, the outcomes are going to depend upon who you elect and appoint to actually run things, not on how you wish that things would be. The ultimate fraud is that the voters are being asked to vote for an imagined Utopia without any concrete foundation in reality to expect it will happen. You won’t get a better grade of apples simply by upsetting the apple cart.


  1. Those behind the petition act as though they are carrying the ten commandments down from the mountain. How dare anyone question their claims, and anyone who dares to do so is against “the people”. Despite the arguments and evidence that you and Mr. Steeves have provided all they can do is repeat the same slogans with no proof for anything they claim. We’re supposed to accept what we are told on faith like we’re in some kind of cult. Question the cult leaders and you won’t get any answers. But you will find yourself ridiculed in a mean spirited cartoon.
    I know a lot of people who signed the petition but never read it. They just relied on what they were told. Now the We The People gang is trying to accuse anyone who really looks into the matter and changes their mind of being some kind of turncoat. Maybe the people changing their minds are just waking up to the fact that they were being sold nothing more than a bag of hot air in the first place.

  2. Mr. Pinkman you make an excellent point about citizens not knowing what they were signing and I do believe the petioner was warned of this before:

    " [a] signature requirement would be meaningless
    if the person supplying the signature has not first seen what it
    is that he or she is signing . . . A person permitted to describe
    orally the contents of an initiative petition to a potential
    signer, without the signer having actually examined the petition,
    could easily mislead the signer by, for example, dismissing,
    downplaying or even flatly misrepresenting, portions of the
    petition that might not be to the signer’s liking. This
    danger seems particularly acute when, in this case, the person
    giving the description is the drafter of the petition, who
    obviously has a vested interest in seeing that it gets the
    requisite signatures to qualify for the ballot."

    Although Mr. Marino claims he won the court battle in 1979, he failed to claim his failure on his second attempt at this form of government in 2000. Also read the full petition and you will see the flyer that is posted by Mr. O'Brien is very misleading to the people, and Mr. O'Brien is very accurate in what he has produced for the public.

    1. So this is at least his fourth attempt in 35 years. You'd think he'd at least have learned how to write a reasonable piece of legislation by now.

  3. A correction to my last post as it appeared the courts were worried about the threat of "misleading the citizens", however one could assume such tactics were used.

  4. If you want to see a potential for abuse, look at this provision from the flyer in the article, “Section 9: Town Moderator will be elected and will appoint a fifteen (15) member Finance Commission.” A town meeting relies heavily on the advice of the Fin Com in regard to budget decisions. Are we to expect that a 15 member commission that wields that much influence and that is appointed by one man won’t be riddled with potential special interests, especially in this town?

  5. Councilor Manna has made the full petition as well as the old bylaws available at

  6. You’ve gotta read Section 10.1 of the petition. According to that section the 5 selectmen, in the first year this petition takes effect, will be elected as follows:
    1 for one year;
    2 for two years; and
    3 for three years.

    And that folks is how we'll elect all 6 of the 5 selectmen.

  7. It seems that you and a few others certainly made fools of Marino and friends in today's Telegram.

  8. As someone who lives in a town (Sturbridge) that has town meeting, it is so important that the people of a community have the power. We often as a community vote against the Board of Selectmen and don't see eye to eye. This is even more prevelant in Southbridge. I urge you to adopt a board of selectmen system instead of just trusting that your Town Council may do what is best.

    1. Jacob, as a resident of Boston I can tell you that Sturbridge would be better off with a mayor. Just like you, I know better than anyone what’s good for communities other than my own. We were so happy with our last mayor that we kept him for twenty years. Can you say that about any of your selectmen or town administrators?
      Don’t bother thanking me. I’ll just butt into your business whenever it suits me.

    2. Jacob J. Ryan - Perhaps you should live in Southbridge before "urging" us to vote for something that was "abolished" because our town was just too large for this type of government. Until you have researched the history and can fully understand what this petition is asking for, perhaps you should not advocate for something that you would not have to live with.

    3. Ahhh..the heady enthusiasm and inexperience of youth!
      And for those of you that are not aware young Mr. Ryan, who graduated from Tantasqua in 2013, is a newly elected member of the School Committee in Sturbridge. While I applaud his interest in government and willingness to give of his time to participate on Committee - he needs to spend some time learning the history of government not only in Sturbridge - but statewide and nationwide. Let's hope the bumps and bruises he aquires along his journey will not diminish his enthusiasm.
      I grew up in Sturbridge and have close family and friends that still live there - including those that are elderly, disabled, have young families and/or work 2nd or 3rd shift - attending a Town Meeting held in the evening - that may go for several hours, and even days to complete the task - is not something that is possible for them. Add to that the fact that Sturbridge does not have a quorum needed to open the meeting or one to keep it going, allows for a very few 'voters' to act on items. Towns that have a quorum - be it only 1% or 2% - of the registered voters (for Southbridge, that could be about 225 or so) - it is difficult to get and maintain a quorum over the course of the Town Meeting.
      I for one, hope this dies @ the ballot box.

  9. Better be careful Ken. That intellectual powerhouse Stephanie DeMartino is bashing you in today’s Southbridge News. Just one more example of the brain trust that is behind this town meeting referendum movement.


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