Saturday, June 14, 2014

Adding It Up – Part I

Ken O’Brien

The annual town election is now a week and a half away.

There are three items on the agenda about which voters will have their say.

First is the vote on the petition that will alter the form of town government from the current council/manager form of government to return to a selectmen/town meeting format.

Second is the election of three members to the Southbridge School Committee.

Third is the election of three members to the Southbridge Town Council. 

I plan to deal with each of these three issues in turn, starting with the petition to alter the form of government.

It is no secret that I am opposed to this action. I have spoken out in several articles here as well as in a letter in the local paper.

The fundamental fact is that the petition is sadly misguided on two levels.

First, and foremost, it is just plain wrong.

I realize that some 650 or so people signed the petition. But how many people who signed the petition actually read it?

Southbridge is not the community that it was in 1973. If you really want to return us to the form of government we had then, take the time to read the petition as well as the bylaws that would be reinstated under this action.

Then ask yourself, in all honesty, if you would show up to vote on the items that will be posed at every town meeting.

The reality is that far fewer people participate in town meetings than in the elections that select members of the town council.

The factual evidence of the real-world consequences of town meeting participation are illustrated by numerous academic studies.. 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, realworld 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, in the first place, the petition item is not going to expand the voice of the public – it is going to shrink it.

In addition, the petition is going to dramatically increase the potential that a town meeting will be “stacked” in favor of or opposition to particular items.

The reality is that the referendum will not achieve its desired objective.

Beyond this, however, is the fact that the petition is very poorly drafted.

I have made much of the fact that while the petition calls for five selectmen, it actually provides for the election of six.

The proponents have, to the extent possible, admitted this error. But it is just the tip of the iceberg.

The petition calls for the appointment of a Finance Committee of fifteen, all appointed by one person – the elected town moderator.

It calls for the Board of Selectmen to make decisions on bylaws essentially depriving the town meetings of these policy matters.

It calls for giving five selectmen “all powers and duties” of the present council plus the ability to “appoint, suspend and remove” all town officers. Since one of the council’s powers is to act as the town’s legislative body, that phrasing could be read as negating the Town Meeting’s ability to legislate.

It specifically eliminates the town’s ability to do engineering work in-house by killing the DPW’s engineering department and the requirement the director be a certified engineer, stating instead “all engineering services shall be performed by private firms or individuals.”

It fails to deal with positions that were elected in 1973, but that are now appointed including treasurer, collector, accountant and Board of Health.

I could go on with this, but the fact is that there was clearly very little thought put into this document.

So the petition fails not only in its primary objective. It fails as a piece of legislation on numerous levels.

In response the framers of this proposal have done nothing more than repeat their belief that it will restore democracy to the people. They have repeatedly failed to address these problems. Rather, they have cobbled together a sloppy piece of work and left it to the legislature to sort it out.

Whether you signed the petition or not, now the time has come to actually vote. 

Vote NO!


  1. It is also no secret that I am NOT opposed to the idea of allowing the voters of Southbridge to make a decision that may give THEM an opportunity to obtain a more competent government either it be a council, mayor, or a town meeting form of government. Albeit that Mr. Obrien's fine intellectual expressions expose more of an elite analysis of the issues rather than the more pragmatic application of an idea that “may” help the town improve our common goals going forward. He disallows any application of a fair hearing on the matter in his arguendo. It is interesting to note that the other night (during the TM forum) there was a political science professor who cautioned all issue proponents to conduct any argument (pro or con) towards an opponent's position positively rather than negatively, in order to find common ground. Mr. Obrien I'm sorry to say fails that exercise in a fairly depressed fashion. That statement is not made to uncompromisingly discount his negatively slanted political implications but to open the issue to preponderant fact finding. The folks who signed the petition are not the village idiots. Mr. Obrien’s left handed reference to them in that fashion (of not reading the petition) is unfair. All who signed realize that the issues raised by opponents will be adjusted by the general court within the limits of the Massachusetts Constitution. After spending years in court rooms all over the United States I have witnessed plaintiffs and defendants belligerently destroy the principle that you must argue your facts first in order to have the jury find a "just" conclusion to your plea. In the Southbridge petition plea to the voters this year I believe opponents or proponents should not support their position with information beyond a reasonable doubt, but with the principle of preponderance of evidence without hearsay anecdotes. Somehow we collectively owe it to the electorate to follow the preponderance principle in this forum. With that in mind let's try to ride this pony.

    I recently visited several towns in Massachusetts that employ the town meeting form of government; Westford and Sherburne Falls Massachusetts were among them. My discussions with several elected and appointed officials unexpectedly supported the so called “stacking” principle related by opponents to the petition question. Nevertheless all expressed the idea of “the swarming” support for an issue guarantees that proponent majorities will have the opportunity to rearrange, change, or adjust an issue of concern in a fair and democratic manner. If opponents (pro or con) to an issue are not present for a vote, than they unfortunately have lost the occasion to protect their position. Therefore in my opinion the reason to protect a quorum at each town meeting is elegantly made no matter what form of government anyone supports.

    Issues of Concern:

    1. It is my opinion that in any case the Selectmen and Finance committee should not be appointed but elected from individual precincts rather than “at large” to protect and secure the more democratic application of the process.

    2. Meeting voter swarming should not upset anyone it is a grantee that the wishes of a majority of those voting will be applied to the government.

    3. Initially Selectperson staggered term span of service will be established by the vote count tabulated at the first election.

    4. Outsourced engineering services

    In the spirit of the principle expressed by our political science friend the other night, can Mr. O’Brian find any positive aspect for a town meeting in “Our Town”? These in as much as many politicians use that so called format when speaking to the public at large on issues of concern from the town, county, state, and national levels.
    Best Regards.
    Respectfully Submitted
    James Sottile

    1. 'In the spirit of the principle expressed by our political science friend the other night, can Mr. O’Brian find any positive aspect for a town meeting in “Our Town”?'

      Perhaps you should practice what you preach Mr. Sottile. I do not think that comment made by the Professor was directed to those who oppose, it was a general comment directed toward all.

    2. You're right it was not my intention to indicate otherwise.
      Best Regards
      James Sottile

  2. I honestly don't get to the blogs much anymore, nor do I comment on issues dealing with the town, much, since I don't pay that close of attention...have many more important things to focus on.

    However, I believe that the people who got the petition signed have a right to push their issue just as those who disagree with it have the right to vote against it. One thing I learned in my past was you can't convince anyone by getting into a pissing contest (and I like both of the gentlemen above).

    As for me, I don't mind saying that I've voted against the measure for a number of reasons, the first being the way it was put together, the six/five issue, the 'Back to the Future' approach, and the fact that you have to be careful what you ask for--you might just get it.

    When so few people turn out to council meetings, I have a hard time believing that people are going to care enough to come out in droves to town meetings, resulting in a strengthening of power, not reduction, for Councilors/Selectmen.

    But then again, that's just my opinion, and it doesn't make me right--or wrong.

  3. When I signed the petition to get town meeting on the ballot, my desire was to open up the opportunity for the town to choose a more democratic method of governance. Sorry, I do not buy the lie that voting for someone to vote instead of me is a comparable form of democracy- voting for a member of the Council is only more democratic than not having any choice at all. Of all the Council candidates that I have voted for that have won, two out of three turn out to be great disappointments.

    What impressed me most about the ballot
    question is that when invited to sign, I was told that having town meetings/selectmen will not guaranty that success will result from town meetings but that they would allow us to take responsibility for ourselves and we can then take the blame or credit for the result. I was even offered a blank copy to read the document in its entirety if I needed more time.
    Frankly the more I read the reasons some give to NOT have town meetings, the more convinced I am to give everyone that cares enough about the town to have a voice AND a Vote. I do NOT see the average Councilor as any more capable to decide than the average voter, so as long as more than nine people show up at a Town Meeting we are probably better off than trusting our Council. Sometimes I wonder how two of our Councilors managed to graduate from High School. And even if my head is up my behind by trusting the average citizen, I believe we at town meeting will come to better conclusions than the Council members that often appear to have their heads up someone else's backside.

  4. It is interesting to note that the other night (during the TM forum) there was a political science professor who cautioned all issue proponents to conduct any argument (pro or con) towards an opponent's position positively rather than negatively, in order to find common ground. 
    Read it again. ....
    James Sottile

  5. Wow. If we dump the Council we get to elect our Board of Health? Not only am I for returning to a town, I am going to beg family and friends to vote for town meetings and an elected Board of Health-give old people rides to the polls too. Why aren't the pro-town government people letting voters know this?

  6. Council is it's own special interest groupJune 15, 2014 at 1:50 AM

    I know lets stay with the stacked form of government that we have. You know the one that campaigns on lower taxes and then raises them instead. The one where specials interests were both for and against the road to hell. The road the Vecchia was against before he joined the for the road special interests thus casting a 5-4 victory for the dump's expensive driveway. Do you ever see a business park or just a former councilor convincing his boss to take advantage of a highly discounted land deal to build the one and only business there.
    The stacking done by council typically happens biweekly. Even more so in elections to get like minded people to run for office to support punitive trash fines, smart carts, punitive sign and graffiti bylaws above and beyond the ABC fine structure already existing in the bylaws. Our current form of government is so much better for not stacking a meeting, setting agendas, and supporting their own special interests. - sarcasm off.

  7. "Council is it's own..."- you win the post of the month award.

    The way I see it, when you have to pass special legislation in order to switch our working town government to a small under productive city and still call us a "town" just to pull the proverbial wool over our eyes to downplay what they were doing, well, I hate to say it but we were screwed. What has being a city ( but called a town) done for us?

    Wake up people. A few years back Chairman Nikolla And VC Clemence even tried to silence citizen,s during agenda items. 40 years ago that was one if the issues related to getting rid of gown meetings- we were absolutely assured that we would never be silenced at town council meetings. I vitedcir those liberals Peloquin and McDonLd because of their fighting for our fight to speak.

    Anyway, like my Granpappy used to day "If you want something done right, do it yourself". The time has come for those interested to run this how. Themselves again. I don't care if it is 55 people or 250 people or 5000 people- as long as more than a few dozen show up they'll certainly do no worse than our Councils and will likely do better.


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