This critique of Town Meeting comes from a longtime Town Meeting member.
Some people view Town Meeting as the only defense against their neighborhood being ruined. Do they outnumber the people and their friends who have served in Town Meeting, know how bad the process is, and swear to have nothing to do with it the rest of their lives? We’re going to find out.
In the next four months, we’re going to learn whether political forces in Amherst have placed the Town in permanent gridlock, essentially under glass as a museum piece, or a theme park for elderly people, rather than a living, breathing community.
Town Meeting is part parallel universe, part aristocracy of people with lots of time, part House of Lords, part seasonal festival. It’s also part parlor game, part game show (“Your time is up!”).
Town Meeting members have no obligation to think about anyone but themselves. They send volunteer board members on wild goose chases and then strangle them. They also strangle the town’s revenue stream.
The system appeals to people’s vanity, and provides a place where they can exercise their whims. It’s a place where falsehoods go uncorrected, a place where no one is forced to answer questions, a place where you never know which 180 people will show up.
Town Meeting has no reliable fact-checker, and has become like Donald Trump or Fox News, one more forum where, if you repeat it enough times without rebuttal, it becomes true.
It has turned into an orgy of self-display, a festival of rhetorical plumage, the embodiment of baby-boomer self-indulgence: “I am right, so whatever I do or say is right.”
Being a member of Town Meeting is great – if you like not having to answer to anything, maintaining a private life while exercising public power, not having anyone monitor whether you’re doing your homework, never having to explain why you voted a certain way, and being able to show up or not as you alone see fit.
The unwillingness to defer to others, even when popularly elected and having done their homework, is an Achilles Heel in our community, the dark flip side of “Question Authority.”
Our government structure is not set up to congeal public opinion into something coherent. The primary function is to delay and obstruct. It’s an inherently conservative system, a car stuck in Park. It works best for a deeply conservative (about change), highly inattentive electorate.
But no system of government wastes civic energy like this one. We’ve been swimming in this tank so long, we don’t recognize how much energy it takes. There are people who think inefficiency is a virtue, or worse, the key measure of how much democracy we have.
Town Meeting infects the culture of the town and ruins how government works. It plays to the worst tendencies of our town.
Some people are apprehensive about “the consent of the governed,” i.e., essentially saying that free, fair, wide-open elections are the playthings of monied interests. It’s an incredibly well-educated town, yet we don’t seem to trust well-educated voters.
What a difference it will make in our political culture when all votes matter! It’s time we embrace the future and ask: Are we a progressive or a defensive community?