By: Philippe Thibault, 5-23
The first Monday in the month of June is Dracut’s Spring Town Meeting. All the articles for the warrant are in and recorded. There are forty-five articles this year on an array of topics. The Spring Town Meeting by Town Charter is supposed to be predominately related to fiscal matters, budgets, and expenditures.
he first eighteen articles will be dealing with these actions. That leaves twenty-seven articles dealing with street acceptances, zoning reform and the main attraction at the end of the night. A feasibility study for a new middle school in east Dracut’s Kenwood District Campbell School. The Town needs at least two hundred and fifty registered voters in attendance to reach quorum, the minimum number of votes that must be in attendance to conduct business for the body politic.
If you follow other towns and their town meetings, most people will estimate the time required for a meeting of this magnitude will be several nights over the course of a week or two. In every other bucolic hamlet in New England, I would say you were correct. Please leave your preconceived notions at the check in tables. I will draw your attention to Phil’s Town Meeting Theorem: Dracut Town Meeting will last only two and a half hours. You may believe that the number of articles has a strong determination in this formula. It does not. The articles are the constant of the equation. Sure, the volume of articles will change from meeting to meeting, but within a single meeting it is the constant. The variable is the time spent on each article.
I have been at town meeting where an eighty-five-million-dollar budget was approved by unanimous vote in less than forty-five seconds, while the acceptance of a portion of road in the hinterlands of Dracut garnered nearly three quarters of an hour of debate. That meeting ended in two hours. The shortened time does not inspire citizens to attend, however. There is always a plea to attain this elusive count.
There was a movement several years ago to set the quorum at zero by the administration and some selectmen. Their argument being, “anyone not in attendance didn’t want to participate.” I spoke in opposition stating, “there are people that cannot make Town Meeting because of other commitments.
They may have a night job, school, a meeting, or are a caregiver to a family member or friend. It is for these people that we must honor the requirement of quorum.” I do have a fear that without participation our purist form of democracy is a phantom veil for oligarchies. This is a bait and switch that too many politicians understand and use to their advantage.
These same politicians in Dracut have perfected the art of turning laws into weapons. A friend had a conflict-of-interest complaint filed against him at the attorney general’s office because he spoke at town meeting on a subject he had “an interest “in.
How ludicrous is it to say that a democratic forum that is reliant on the individual in not by its nature self-preserving and self-interested. Politicians, including the current Chair of the Dracut Board of Selectmen, will often play both ends of the field: violating the very regulations and laws they want you to follow while admonishing you for questioning their integrity. Just recently, a member of that administration proclaimed several times that they “are an honest person.” I am still counting my spoons.
Has Town Meeting run its course for a community like Dracut. A municipality with thirty-three thousand residents, twenty thousand registered voters and a less than two percent of those are required to turnout for a June Town Meeting. There is talk of the selectmen forming a Charter Review Commission, whom they will appoint, to scour over the forty-year-old document. Are we asking a barber if we need a haircut? I believe the Town and its citizens would be better served by an elected Charter Commission to promote an independent examination. I know the senior selectman has a disdain for independent commissions or thinkers for that matter.
I will be in attendance on June 5th at the High School Center for the Performing Arts to participate in a long tradition as I have for many years.
There is only one way to revitalize participation at Town Meeting and that is to participate. Every voice and every vote do matter. ◊