One recent article in the Camden Herald caught my attention, and a term used by a Union resident who was quoted has been bouncing around in my head all week: confrontational democracy.

“Although town meeting can be wonderful, not everyone is cut out for that type of confrontational democracy,” Patrick Mellor wrote in an email to the Union Select Board. It reminded me of the way my family feels sometimes at the dinner table. My older son and I can go back and forth debating over word choice or homework policies or who said what at the right or wrong time. To us, it is invigorating and not personal, but the same conversation to other family members can feel overwhelming, hostile, and exhausting.

I have returned to read the article a couple times, both to commiserate silently with the Union Select Board over the question they were wrestling with, and to reread some of the excellent points made by those who were quoted.

The term “confrontational democracy” is one you are more likely to see in academic literature related to international conflicts than as a description of town voting procedures, but it jumped out at me as an excellent way of describing many aspects of our local democracy in its current form. I have come to accept that democracy is messy and confrontational by its very nature, but maybe we have taken it too far. Have we created a system that encourages and rewards the most confrontational people and styles within our society, while telling the rest to either toughen up or sit on the sidelines?

The article discusses the Union Select Board decision to revisit whether any change in the town budget voting format should be considered. Do Union residents want to continue voting on the town budget by an open show of hands or would they rather do it by referendum vote in private on a ballot like they do for things like state bond questions and elected officials? The first process allows meeting attendees to dissect certain aspects of the budget and make motions from the floor to raise or lower a certain line item while the second is some form of yes or no to a recommendation.

It is the same thing we asked Camden voters in November (they were resounding in preferring a private vote by ballot) and the Union Select Board brought up many of the same pros and cons that we have all grappled with. The idea of town meeting is to allow open debate and provide the maximum amount of power for an individual to influence the town’s spending and decision making, but the result is that a small percentage of the population chooses to participate.

It is also thought of as a way of limiting the power of elected representatives. In the past, the practice has prevailed on the assumption that the quality of decision making should theoretically be so improved by this format that it is worth the tradeoff in very low voter turnout. It is the old argument of quality over quantity, and in theory, the idea holds up. Shouldn’t forcing people to listen to one another, even opposing viewpoints, before they vote help them make better decisions?

In my experience, oral arguments presented off the cuff with no time for reflection have just as high a likelihood of influencing a voter as a Facebook post that someone might read before heading to the polls. Giving people time to vote at their own pace and on their own timeline is generally preferable, even though I have seen community discussions at town meeting produce some great outcomes that were fun to participate in.

The budget presented to voters is generally the result of months of review by town staff, committees, and the Select Board (who themselves are elected by residents). After numerous public input opportunities in open meetings, is it good enough to just let voters say yes or no to that budget privately or is there something more to be gained by arguing about it again in public and then voting by show of hands in front of anyone else who shows up to the annual town meeting?

Forcing people to vote publicly on matters they care about in front of people who may be clients, neighbors, bosses, teachers is a very unpopular idea, but we allowed this to persist in Camden for a very long time before even daring to ask voters if they wanted a change. COVID forced the change temporarily and a lot of people were unwilling to be forced back into a meeting room after having the ability to vote privately on their own schedule. In June, voters will have the opportunity to vote on changes to the Charter that would formalize a move away from open town meeting as the method for voting on the budget.

In the meantime, we are squarely in budget season in Camden. The Budget Committee is meeting on Thursdays, the draft budget they are reviewing is available also for public review on the town website, and questions and public input are welcome through a variety of formats at any point. Ultimately, the Select Board will review the budget presented by staff as well as any changes recommended by the Budget Committee before holding a public hearing and then making our final recommendations to voters. Sending an email to TOCselectboard@camdenmaine.gov will go to all Select Board members and the Town Manager and are always welcome.

It was refreshing to read an article where thoughtful input led to reconsidering an issue. As a former Union resident, myself, I will be interested to see what they decide. As a Camden Select Board member, I know that we need elected officials to be comfortable with confrontation and pretty thick skinned when it comes to the wide range of emotions that residents experience related to town issues.

However, as a community member, friend, mother, and neighbor, it seems most people want to avoid confrontation with their fellow community members, and we should brainstorm ways to make that easier. Town meeting seems to be one thing that we are ready to change in Camden, but I wonder what other things we should try in the interest of cultivating a local democracy that is based more in conversation than confrontation.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Select Board member. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.

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