HomeOpinionEssay: Town Meeting No Longer Serves Hopkinton

Essay: Town Meeting No Longer Serves Hopkinton

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I was recently lent a copy of John Gould’s New England Town Meeting: Safeguard of Democracy. Published in 1940, it is one of the earliest books – if not the first – to document the Town Meeting format, which is practiced in New England but almost nowhere else in the United States. In it, Gould describes a Town Meeting that bears little resemblance to Hopkinton’s:

“The whole family comes – mother and father to vote, and the children to listen and to learn how. Town Meeting Day begins after chores- the moderator is sometimes chosen as early as six-thirty in the morning. Events move on with balloting in the morning, lunch, appropriations in the afternoon, supper at six, and a Town Meeting dance at night. Commerce, industry, and schooling stop. The entire population – men, women, children – gather at Town House to deliberate on matters of government for the coming year.”

Gould accompanies his cheerful treatise with pictures of men puffing their pipes and sternly deliberating while their wives serve the meals. It is a testament to both direct, deliberative democracy and the reinforcement of traditional gender roles so common in publications of that era. 

History of Town Meeting

Record keeping in colonial New England was poor, but it is theorized that Town Meeting began as an adaptation of local vestry meetings held in 17th century England. The vestry (or church elders) were responsible for the financial decisions of the parish church, and early English settlers created parish-based governments based on their experience with those meetings. 

Michael Zucker, Professor of History at University of Pennsylvania, paints a somewhat darker picture than Gould. In his essay Mirage of Democracy: The Town Meeting in America, Zucker claims that Town Meeting was created as a way to enforce groupthink. Because the authority of the crown was in far-away England, and there was no legitimate local law enforcement, towns used Town Meeting to ensure conformity.

“Order in those eighteenth-century towns depended far more on public opinion than on the modest coercive measures at their disposal,” Zucker writes. “Effective action required a popular will approaching unanimity, and the work of the meeting was accordingly bent toward securing such unanimity. Harmony and homogeneity became – because they had to become – the routine realities of local life. The result was a kind of government by common consent, but such government was not democratic in any modern sense. It did not submit differences to the judgment of the majority. A majority would have implied a minority, and the towns could no more condone a competing minority by their norms than they could have constrained it by their police power.”

Unanimity was the order of the day in colonial New England, and it is a trend that has continued to the present day. Of the 48 articles proposed on the Hopkinton 2023 Annual Town Meeting warrant, all but 7 passed, and most with little debate and by a wide majority. Of the articles that experienced extensive debate at Town Meeting, it is notable that while almost an hour was devoted to an amendment to the town’s leash law very little discussion was accorded to the $113 million FY2024 Operating Budget.

As Zucker writes, “Democracy devoid of legitimate difference, dissent, and conflict is, of course, something less than democracy. Men who vote only as their neighbors vote have something less than the full range of democratic options.”

In modern democracies, voting is done in a private booth, so people are not subject to bullying and disapproval by their neighbors if they hold an opposing view. Town Meeting does not allow citizens to express their opinion without fear of reprisal. Public shaming by the majority is not democracy.

The Problem with Scale and Who Attends

There are several obvious problems with the town meeting format when scaled to larger groups. The first is that attendance is poor. According to the Town Clerk, over the course of both 2023 Annual Town Meeting nights only 712 (6%) of an eligible 11,500 registered voters checked in. 

Professor Jane Mansbridge of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University wrote “town meetings in Vermont and Massachusetts feature extremely low turnout in part because they last for a full working day, leading to disproportionate representation of seniors and non-working residents in the meetings.” Although Hopkinton’s Town Meeting is scheduled on consecutive weeknights, the problem remains: Affordable childcare is out of reach for some, and those that are willing and able to stay decide the fate of the rest. As Mansbridge rightly points out, those attending are often not working people or those with young families, which comprise the majority of Hopkinton’s electorate.

Another problem is the general disenchantment of the electorate.

“I don’t go to town meeting because I don’t think it changes anything,” said one Hopkinton mother, who wished to remain anonymous. “I’ve seen the process and seen them (Select Board) do the opposite of what the town wants, so what’s the point?”

Organization Chart for the Town of Hopkinton

The Board of Selectmen (or Select Board as it is now known) is charged with expansive control over town. According to the town charter, “the executive powers of the Town shall be vested in the Board of Selectmen.” The Select Board is the primary policy maker for the town, adopts and submits the town budget, and creates and manages committees that create policy for town offices. They are the executive of the town.

Importantly, the Select Board appoints the Town Manager, who has a large scope of control, ranging from Finance to Public Works to Youth & Family Services. The Town Manager is empowered to hire, fire, negotiate, and make policy changes as they see fit. The Select Board does not have direct operational control over the Town Manager’s departments, instead relying on the Town Manager’s report for updates. In essence, the executive’s hands are tied.

Within the Town, there are 28 appointed Boards and Commissions of varying size, with most members appointed by the Select Board. There are 13 elected Boards and Commissions.

The problem with this structure is that it has grown to be too large, and it is exacerbated by vacancies. For example. the Town Manager is currently acting as the acting Chief Financial Officer, a vital position that has been vacant since Tim O’Leary departed earlier this year. This level of responsibility is too much for one person to manage effectively, especially one who is unaccountable to the electorate.

Organization chart for Town of Hopkinton. Click here for a full size version.

A Government by Committee

Under the Town Meeting structure, Hopkinton has only one or two chances per year to change our zoning, appropriate funds, authorize bonding or do anything that requires legislation. So why do we maintain this seemingly inefficient form of government? Presumably because this is how it has always been done. In Massachusetts, both the General Laws and the constitution place strict limits on the circumstances and the process by which a town can change its Town Meeting form of government.

Hopkinton is essentially a government by committee, and the consequence is that decisions are made slowly and projects take a long time to complete. The Select Board is designated as the “executive” of the town, but this is an oxymoron; an executive is an inherently singular function.

Also absent is accountability. President Harry Truman famously had a plaque that read “The Buck Stops Here” on the Resolute desk. But in a committee structure, the buck stops nowhere, because one member can always hide behind another.

Take the most recent matter of the Upper Charles Trails Committee (UCTC). After months of deliberation, the Select Board recently voted to reinstate the UCTC, against the will of the voters at Town Meeting. “I disagreed, but I deferred to my colleagues,” said Select Board member Shahidul Mannan. Mannan ended up siding with the other members, making the vote unanimous. In fact, on every matter, almost all Select Board votes are unanimous. Presumably these agreements are made in Executive Session prior to their meetings, and Executive Session minutes are not released. Thus, the citizens are kept in the dark.

If this system were extended to the Federal level, it would be as if Congress (or one party of congress, to be precise) were responsible for all decision making in the country. There is no Executive check to their power, or any instrument of progress outside of them.

The Problem with the Extensive Use of Unpaid Volunteers

All elected and appointed boards and commissions in Hopkinton are comprised of unpaid volunteers. While civic service is an inherently noble quality, it presents challenges, namely in the quality of the individual candidates, the representation they offer, and competition for their time and attention. 

This presents the danger that some (not all) of these volunteers may have a vested interest in the outcome of decisions that are made, or may have joined in an attempt to influence those decisions. Another problem is lack of representation, as unpaid volunteers have little incentive to show up for meetings, devote sufficient time to making difficult decisions that require extensive research, and are less inclined to prioritize town matters over other issues in their lives. This in no way diminishes the dedication of our current volunteers, but it is also not the most efficient way to run a town or make impactful decisions.

Some boards and committees require their members to commit an extraordinary amount of time, and none more than the Select Board. Mannan estimates he spends between 20 – 30 hours per week between formal meetings, emails, research, and town events.

To be effective, a candidate for office in Hopkinton must be willing to sacrifice a lot of time for no pay, and in some cases, endure a healthy amount of criticism from the media and their constituents. Few working parents have the desire or ability to make those tradeoffs, and thus they are underrepresented at all levels of local government.

“The amount of time I spend varies widely depending on what’s going on,” said Nancy Richards-Cavanaugh, Chair of the School Committee. “On average I would say it’s about 10 hours per week. Summer tends to slow down, but between school reopening, the Elmwood School project, kicking off budget season and contract negotiations on the horizon it will be significantly more in September.”

Alternatives to Town Meeting

Of the 35,933 villages, towns, and cities in the United States, the Town Meeting format is practiced only in some parts of New England, comprising just 5% of all local governments.

Hopkinton is growing rapidly; our town now has more than 19,000 residents. With only 3% of the population attending Town Meeting, and far fewer vested with actual decision making power, now may be the time to consider transitioning to a form of city government, with an elected mayor and council. 

The City of Framingham converted in 2017. According to a Boston Globe article, “Under the new charter, the City Council will have nine district members serving two-year terms and two at-large members serving four-year terms. The mayor will replace the Board of Selectmen as the town’s chief executive, and the City Council, meeting at least monthly, will replace the representative Town Meeting.” 

The Secretary of State lists 13 cities in Massachusetts that have incorporated but opted to leave “Town of” in their name to avoid the baggage the word “city” implies. Amesbury, which is smaller than Hopkinton, became a city in 2012. The Town of Franklin is actually a city.

Other cities have found that the advantages of a paid mayor and council are numerous. Accountability is key; by virtue of their office, an elected mayor is forced to visit their constituents to learn and act on what is most important to them. They are also empowered to make decisions quickly and efficiently. Perhaps most importantly, by living in town, they wake up thinking about Hopkinton every day, and take it personally when they’re driving over potholes and damaged roads. This is their city, after all.

The city council is the legislative body for the town, moving initiatives and projects along quickly. Their mandate is to listen, study and act on behalf of their constituents. They are also paid; In Boston, each city council member receives half of the mayor’s annual compensation.

Conclusion

There are many obstacles and challenges to transitioning to a city form of government, the first being apathy. The voters that don’t show up to Town Meeting and are not engaged are likely to be the biggest beneficiary of this change. The voters that do show up are unlikely to want a change. They enjoy the idea that their voice matters, even if it doesn’t from a practical standpoint. 

Also challenging is the process itself: A citizen’s petition to elect a Charter Commission would need to be passed at Town Meeting, the charter must be rewritten, an affirmative vote at town meeting is needed to approve the new charter, and a vote would follow at the ballot box to elect the mayor and city council. There are many points of failure along the way; Framingham citizens attempted it three times before they were successful, and it was a close vote.

However, the more Hopkinton grows the more inevitable this change becomes. We can only hold on to the past for so long. Our antiquated form of government is not suitable for a fast-growing town. 

Peter Thomas is the Editor-in-Chief of HopNews.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Despite my love of all things New England and Hopkinton history, I have to say I agree with the Editor on this. Admittedly this is heresy especially to someone who actually enjoys going to Town Meeting. However, having watched my Massachusetts hometown change into a mayoral/city council form of government, I can’t help notice how efficient it is compared to our current system. It is also much more transparent. And, they were able to keep their identity as a town rather than a city.
    One correction to the above – “Select Board” is the official name for our executive branch, we voted for that change at Town Meeting.

  2. What a well written and insightful article! I’ve lived here for 20 years and have only been to a few town meetings. Partly because of the reasons mentioned above but mostly being deeply disappointed after each. I love this town but our system of government is antiquated, broken and is not representative of the majority of people living here. It is most definitely time for a change.

  3. I attended my first Town Meeting this year and found it a frustrating and yet fulfilling experience. The late nights and slow pace can be frustrating, but having the opportunity to make your case to the voters and vote on an issue in real-time is inspiring. I was proud of the people that stood up to represent their strong beliefs (even if I didn’t agree with them). And I thought it was very telling when others didn’t.

    The major fault of the Town Meeting is that it relies on the citizen to actively participate (despite all the logistical challenges), but really that potential fault lies in any form of democracy. Freedom isn’t free, the citizen must expend time and effort to educate themselves on the issues and hold elected officials, paid employees, and committee volunteers accountable. Without that unrelenting effort corruption inevitably takes hold, and there is no shortage of examples from around the state (and country) to illustrate that point clearly.

    Until this last Town Meeting I didn’t realize how lazy I had been as a citizen and that point was driven further home with the recent school committee election when I blindly followed the group think on social media when deciding my vote. Given my experience I am hesitant to move away from the Town Meeting structure. Although clearly we need to re-evaluate our hiring practices and salaries if we’re having trouble filling critical paid-positions in a timely manner.

    • I’ll also add that while expensive ad campaigns and pricey advertising blitzes can sway elections and ballot measures with almost no actual debate of the issues on their merits, the Town Meeting offers grass root movements the opportunity for a fairer fight when they don’t have deep pockets. A case can presented directly to the deciders and everyone gets the same allotted time to make their argument.

    • One last point (I promise), voter turnout at the 2022 Annual Town Election was 2,214 ballots. While it’s true that turnout for Town Meeting was 1/3rd of that, whether it’s Town Meeting or annual voting as a community we’re still only mustering, at best, 11% of the Town to make critical decisions that affect all of our daily lives. Democracy runs on the people that show up. If low turnout is an access issue, we need to fix that. If it’s an apathy issue then that’s on the individual citizen and it doesn’t matter what structure we switch to, it’s still going to fail.

  4. I’ve never commented before but have to say, I 100% support this. My first town meeting when I moved here in 2006 was somewhat appalling. A vote was taken that was quite important. Then a bunch of people left and a recount was requested. That changed the course of the vote which seemed incredibly unfair and unethical. There were many issues over the course of the years that I would have liked to get up and speak on. But I didn’t because I’d be required to publicly state my address. This seems like a risk to privacy and safety. If I wanted to present a dissenting opinion, I’d be living in fear that the whole town knows where I live. No thank you!

  5. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, “Open Town Meeting is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”

    Funny I just had a lengthy discussion with a family member on the topic of community, and the loss thereof. The change in Town Meeting from the example given in Gould’s book (a very delightful book I need point out) and today’s is, I think, representative of that.

    A thoughtful piece, Mr Thomas, but you will understand that I disagree with your premise. If the citizenry choose to not participate in their own government, then they have no grounds to complain.

  6. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but the fact that nearly all Select Board votes have been unanimous (as mentioned in this article) is troubling to me. This same trend can be seen for the School Committee, which I follow fairly closely. Not sure how the other town committees stack up. Differing perspectives and having the wherewithal to stand by your own opinions is a valuable trait of anyone wishing to be in these roles.

  7. We never had any issues when Hopkinton had just three selected board members, no town manager or Human resource department. If you look at the great big picture in town, we only started to have major issues with the schools, taxes, finances and local government after we hired a town manager, increased our select board and added a Human Resources department. Small government is the answer to prosperity.

  8. Perhaps it might be time to leave direct democracy (town meeting) and representative democracy (select board, city council, etc.) behind and look at different styles.

    The Town Meeting and the ‘issues’ identified are problems in direct democracy. The discussions about political parties in Hopkinton are emblematic of issues in representative democracies.

    As someone who has studied organizations for many years, it would be interesting to try a different governance structure. For example, some of the non-heirarchical structures might be if interest to those who feel that centralized power is problematic. Additionally, focusing on consensus rather than majority rule makes it a ‘fairer’ system – in reality, it’s rarely a zero-sum decision and only taking the majority is all or nothing.

    Personally, I’d be interested in a town like Hopkinton looking into Sociocracy (https://www.sociocracyforall.org/sociocracy/) rather than moving to a completely representative democracy. A representative democracy would exacerbate some of the issues identified.

    Additionally, would the people who are interested in abolishing this government really want to increase taxes again to pay for the new form of government? 🙂

  9. Thank you Peter for prompting this discussion.
    Issues facing our local government are complex. We need a government system able to assess issues and find the best solutions rather than short term fixes.
    We need to adopt a process for dispute resolution that builds consensus rather than relying on power plays.
    Professional town governance provides transparency and better quality.
    We also need to encourage the discussion of a wide variety of options in a safe environment.
    We need to work on building trust in our expanding community.

    Check out the
    Hopkinton Master Plan!

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