Wednesday, June 20, 2012
A few post ATM thoughts
As I look in the rear view mirror and reflect upon our most recent multi-day Annual Town Meeting (ATM), I am left with a few thoughts that best reflect for me what I characterize as "the good, the bad, and the ugly". In no particular order, they are as follows.
Session 1 of ATM was witness to a relatively strong showing in terms of participation (452 at its high point), at least until the first break, where that number dropped by at least 50%. By the end of the evening there were less than 60 voters making decisions for a community of approximately 9,800 residents - 6,500 (approximate) of which are registered voters.
Session 2 of ATM was witness to 149 registered voters at its high point, half of whom left after our break. By the end of the evening, 50 voters (approximate) were making those extremely important decisions that affect every resident of our community.
As such, between two long nights of deliberation, some of the most critical decisions in our community were made by less than 70 voters in attendance at a particular time. Those items included manpower and/or hourly increases in various departments, debt services principal and interest, Saturday Town Meetings, acceptance of public ways, the purchase of 310 Main St., as well as a collective bargaining agreement. It is truly unimportant what side of any of these issues one stood on, as each individual arrives at their position based upon their set of facts and philosophies and makes their best attempt to express their voice by way of raising their cards - for, or against. The troubling part here is that important policy and financial decisions, which will impact all residents in one way or another, were made by less than 1% of the registered voters in our community.
To that end, two items in particular stand out as worthy of comment in terms of my personal position; one being Article 30: Saturday Town Meetings, the other being Article 27: the acceptance or lack thereof with respect to Regep Lane.
In terms of Article 30, it is disheartening that there appears to be a general lack of empathy for the challenges faced by seniors, working individuals/couples who are simply unavailable for evening meetings and those whose life's demands as opposed to their life choices make it simply impossible for them to attend evening meetings. The rationale offered against Saturday meetings was generally consistent in its theme, such being that it would interfere with Saturday sports, dance recitals or family time. Certainly these are all valid concerns but the reality is that we are talking one, or at most, 2 Saturdays per year. Surely, one might have to miss a game to attend Town Meeting, or miss Town Meeting to attend a game, but those are choices, they are not true obstacles in one's life that dictate a inability to attend a meeting such as the REAL fear of driving at night or returning to a dark home at night for seniors. Nor are they true obstacles that dictate one's inability to attend Town Meeting that a REAL work schedule does, or the REAL life demands that make it absolutely impossible for someone to attend Town Meeting.
One argument offered against the move to Saturday meetings was that "Saturdays are family days". This of course begs the question, are all other days non-family days? Does my particular commitment to the responsibilities, privileges, and joys of being a family man end on Sunday and resume again on the following Saturday? Are we on a "hall pass" the rest of the week? As a father, husband, and family member, I can tell you that in our household - EVERY DAY is a family day, as we recognize with all sincerity the fact that "we know not the day nor the hour of our calling". Thus, we endeavor to make the most of every day we have together as opposed to simply making Saturday important. A cynic might be led to question the frailty of a society whose sacrifice of one, or perhaps two Saturdays a year would create such havoc as to truly disrupt or destroy one's family to any level of true significance. For a nation that once sacrificed so much, for so many, with often so little, to have arrived at a point to where missing a game on a Saturday is an absolutely unreasonable thing to do in order to extend ourselves to the REAL limitations faced by our fellow man and woman, is as I stated before, somewhat disheartening.
In terms of Article 27, our failure to approve the acceptance of Regep Lane, I must say that for me, it is quite disturbing that we - as a community - decided to deprive 6 property owners on Regep Lane of their right to town services (right, by way of the fact that the road has been brought up to the standards required for acceptance by the Planning Board and the Town DPW) because of conservation issues on private property. Those conservation issues by the way - of no doubt significant with respect to their importance - were admittedly, as stated by the Chairman of the Conservation Commission at Town Meeting, completely unrelated to the road acceptance requirements. Thus, that reasonable people arrived at a conclusion that the holding of these residents of Regep Lane (who are in no way associated with the failures of the developer to address those private property concerns which are unrelated to the requirements of public road acceptance) as hostages against said developer, is an exercise of good government is quite disheartening. These residents who purchased their homes in good faith and have now become pawns between the Town and the developer, will experience all of the financial liabilities associated with home ownership in Sturbridge (i.e. high taxes, sewer bills and betterment fees), yet few of the privileges that go along with same (i.e. bus pick-up for school children, plowing, road maintenance, etc.).
Unfortunately, rather than pursuing this matter - associated solely with the developer - by way of the proper venue (our legal system), we are using the taxpaying residents of Regep Lane as tools in a struggle that they are not part of and have absolutely no control over. Yes indeed, this is rather disheartening and somewhat embarrassing that we would exercise the "awesome power of government" in a manner completely at odds with the founding of this nation.
In the late 1780s James Winthrop, an anti-federalist who strongly advocated for a Bill of Rights, wrote that “A bill of rights...serves to secure the minority against the usurpation and tyranny of the majority.” He further argued that "Popular self-government...flourished best in small communities, where rulers and ruled interacted daily..." while warning "...that the absence of a Bill of Rights meant that the federal government could trample on such rights...". Replace the words "federal government" with "local government" and the same fears apply, but at a smaller and more intimate level of government.