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Future uncertain for the traditional New England town meeting

By Daniel Dunkle | Feb 18, 2021
Source: File photo A man reads his town report during a traditional New England town meeting in Cushing long, long ago.

The traditional New England town meeting has long been revered as a pure form of democracy, but decreased attendance, the pandemic and the rise of absentee balloting may mean the end of an era.

In the past year, many local towns have forgone the town meeting process to vote on their budgets at the polls while others have come up with creative solutions including drive-in meetings. Towns have seen increased participation and easier access. Voters now can decide important issues with unprecedented convenience via absentee and mail-in ballots.

“Town meeting is absolutely in danger of change,” said Lincolnville Town Administrator David Kinney.

He and other town officials across Knox County have seen that more people vote at the polls than at a town meeting.

“Everybody is into instant gratification,” he said. “Now you can call up. We mail you a ballot. We never see you. You never see us. Yet we’re here to do your bidding.”

He noted that some towns were already changing over to referendum-style town meetings before the pandemic, arguing it increases voter participation.

“Towns and cities are going to generally move in that direction even after the pandemic,” said Eric Conrad of the Maine Municipal Association. “...Is something lost? No doubt about it. It’s the most popular structure for town government in Maine, and it has served us well for a couple of centuries. But it’s also 2021. Many of our members had to adapt last year, and they learned that more people are participating.”

Camden Select Board Chair Robert Falciani said the town has formed its charter commission to evaluate the pros and cons of the town meeting government versus other ways of doing the town’s business.

He said the last two elections have had record turnout and that is due to absentee ballots. People have more time to look at the ballot items, research them and think about them this way, he said.

In contrast, he said attendance has been quite low at town meetings.

However, the town is required by its charter to conduct business this way when the pandemic is over.

Falciani said there are other options beyond simply going to a city form of government. For example, he said there could be a hybrid model where more of the things that need to be decided in town government can be done by the town manager and select board without going to a town meeting vote. It would essentially give the select board more latitude.

Conrad said participation in town meetings has decreased dramatically from what it was in 1950, though recent years have not seen as much change in attendance from one year to the next.

He also noted that some states out west have already changed to primarily voting by mail.

Rockport Select Board Chair Debra Hall notes that town meetings require putting your views on display. "There is a large percentage of voters in Rockport who prefer to keep their views to themselves," she said. "The town meeting method does not permit that and can result in the loudest views being heard but not necessarily reflect the views of the majority of the town’s residents."

Veteran town meeting moderator and local attorney Fred Newcomb said part of it may be generational. He said most of the people turning out for town meetings in Owls Head are mature citizens while younger people tend to stay home.

“As time goes on and the older group dies off, I don’t know if the next generation is going to step up and get involved,” he said.

Union Town Manager Jay Feyler agreed. “I do believe eventually they may [be phased out]. We may be surprised and the younger generation may get interested and involved, but most of us are not seeing that at the moment.”

Falciani said people are so busy with their lives these days that they do not have time to be actively involved in local government.

“We’re in changing times,” he said. “When there was more participation, it may be that life was different.”

Many town officials prefer town meetings.

“There’s a dynamic to it,” Kinney said. “I’m a believer in it. Always have been.”

One of the questions raised by changes brought on by the pandemic is whether the voters using absentee ballots and voting at the polls are as well informed. In a town meeting you can ask questions about a ballot item. You can propose an amendment to it, actually enacting a change to the amount of money in a budget, for example. You can make a statement that persuades other residents to vote your way.

Kinney also believes this form of government creates a sense of community and helps people understand how their government operates.

“The closer you are to your local government the better off we’re all going to be,” he said.

“I still like open town meeting,” Feyler said. “Mail-in ballots are so impersonal and enhances the apathy... You can’t explain the history of a particular issue on a written ballot, thus citizens have less information to make a decision.”

One of the constant challenges is getting information out to the voters.

"As a Town Manager, I would want to provide the information in as many methods as possible, print, on the website, social media, etc.," said Rockport Town Manager Bill Post. "But at the end of the day, voters must take it upon themselves to read the information and ask questions for clarification. Open town meetings allow for that directly leading up to the subsequent vote. Referendum voting does not."

"I don’t have a preference of one method over another," Post said. "I have worked in two municipalities that have referendum-style voting for their town meetings and in others that use a combination, depending on the topics. Each style has advantages and disadvantages."

Town officials agreed that turnout at town meetings can be driven by controversial issues on the ballot. There are often two groups at every town meeting: the core group of people who always turn out because of a sense of civic duty, interest or tradition, and those who are there for the hot-button item.

Appleton Select Board Chair John Fenner said that he has heard concerns from people in the town who really love attending town meetings. The town has had to go to referendums during the pandemic.

Newcomb said that when divisions arise in a town, town meeting provides a place for people on both sides to be heard and work things out.

In some towns where select board meetings have become intense during the pandemic, the question might be raised whether they have suffered for lack of the release valve offered by town meetings.

Lawmakers are debating what we have learned during the pandemic and recent national election and some are proposing changes.

Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford has proposed a bill that would allow voters to register with their municipality for ongoing absentee voter status. "The ongoing status entitles a participant to automatically receive absentee ballots for each ensuing state or municipal election," the Maine Municipal Association's Legislative Bulletin for Feb. 12 reports.

MMA has joined the Maine Town and City Clerks Association in opposing this LD 148, "An Act to Establish Ongoing Absentee Voting, which received a public hearing."

Opponents worry it could lead to a perceived increase in election fraud with ballots mailed to homes where residents may have moved or died. In addition, it would increase mailing costs for municipalities, sending absentee ballots to residents who do not even want them, and it requires town clerks to contact voters in some instances about their ballots, creating more work and involvement for clerks during the already hectic election season.

But the question could become philosophical. How much effort are citizens expected to make in doing their duty as voters and how much falls to town leaders and beleaguered clerks?

Turnout is very low for non-town-meeting public hearings, town officials said. Without the knowledge that they can vote on the issues, people are not driven to attend as they would a town meeting.

State Rep. Vicki Doudera of House District 94 said in an email: “In-person town meetings are a time-honored Maine tradition. They are social gatherings that fulfill an important role in small-town democracy, and yet many people feel that participation-wise, referendum questions decided at the ballot box allow many more residents to weigh in on important decisions than do in-person meetings.”

She went on to say, “I have put forward a bill for online voter registration, currently allowed in forty states but not Maine, which would let new voters use a Maine driver's license or social security number to safely register online,” she said. “The pandemic has highlighted ways in which we need to modernize many of our systems, and ease of voter registration is one of them.”

Post has seen how well local governments have responded to the changing needs during the pandemic.

"The pandemic has illustrated to me further how flexible local governments are and how prepared we are when it comes to the voting process," he said.

Going hand-in-hand with the trends involving town meetings has been the increase in local boards meeting via Zoom and other online formats. This has greatly increased access for residents and members of the press interested in select boards, city council, planning boards and even advisory committees.

Conrad expects this to be a lasting change even after the pandemic.

“Participation has increased greatly with online meetings,” Feyler said. “The downside is that some can sit behind a computer and say things they normally would not say in person. I do believe you lose the ability to see and react to body language.”

State Sen. David Miramant said, “The legislature now takes testimony on bills from wherever people are. With the Zoom format, you no longer have to drive to Augusta and use up a whole day to speak for three minutes about a bill. I hope that this part stays in place after we return to doing our work in the State House so that more voices can be heard.”

Conrad said towns want their citizens to be well-informed. Of the 486 municipalities in Maine, 340 have town websites, he said.

However they vote or view meetings, town officials urge citizens to participate in local government.

“We all have to live somewhere and you can leave it to others to decide your destiny,” Kinney said. “The world belongs to them that get involved and participate.”

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Margaret McCrea | Feb 21, 2021 07:49

Definition of community: a feeling of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals. I am all in favor of getting more community involvement by using the a Zoom format but by eliminating physical town meetings, I think the we are losing an important aspect of community.  There is a major difference when people interact or make comments face to face while sitting amongst their neighbors rather than looking at a little box of tiny faces or names on a computer screen. The social human element has been removed and people lose the ability and flexibility of discussing both sides of an issue or having questions addressed in a more sensitive platform.  We are slowly losing the small town attributes of friendly familiarity that historically make a community a community.


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