Mandi Jo Hanneke
You may be wondering, won’t the proposed Charter make the ballots longer? And won’t moving to bi-annual elections be less democratic? The answer to both questions is no.
Why? Because, for elections, the current system is more complicated, less frequent for each official, and offers less accountability. In addition, the number of candidates on the ballot each spring is often the same or greater than what will happen under the proposed Charter.
Why is the current system less frequent when elections are held yearly? Because each official only runs every three years. So, as a voter, you only get a chance to vote a person out every three years instead of every two.
Why does the current system offer less accountability? Because not only do voters get to vote officials in or out only every three years (instead of every two), we don’t even know for the legislature whether we’re voting for candidates whose positions we agree or disagree with. A lack of campaigns leaves us in the dark about the candidates running for the legislature.
This means we can’t vote for or against anyone based on the positions the candidates hold; as a result, we have to wait until a specific vote comes up to know where Town Meeting members stand, and then wait an extra year to actually vote based on that knowledge.
In the proposed Charter, we will know before we even vote for a candidate for the first time where that person stands on the major issues, and then we will be able to vote based on their record after two years, not three.
Now, let’s talk about simplicity and number of candidates. In the proposed system, it’s extremely easy for a resident to know exactly what offices will be on the ballot — not just how many, but the length of terms: every office (20 of them), all for two years. Nobody will have to call the clerk’s office to find out, or wait until candidate forms are available.
In the current system, nobody knows until, at a minimum, the candidate forms are out. Why? Because two out of every three years, the Select Board has 2 vacancies, the 3rd year, there is 1. Two out of every three years, the School Committee has 2 vacancies, the 3rd year, there is 1 (and it doesn’t match up with the Select Board).
Four out of every five years, there are elections for Redevelopment Authority and Housing Authority. It’s hard to tell which one is the off year, because all terms are staggered, there are five members, one of whom is appointed. There are always 2 Library Trustee, 1 Moderator, and 1 Oliver Smith Will Trustee vacancies.
For Town Meeting, there are always 8 three-year terms up in every precinct. But, every 10 years, all 24 seats are vacant due to the redrawing of lines after the census.
Then there are the vacancies that are due to people resigning or moving before a term expires. At the last election, extra vacancies for Library Trustee and School Committee, in addition to a number of extra vacancies for Town Meeting member, the number being different in each precinct.
So, what’s the total amount to in the current system? At a minimum, every year the public votes on 15 offices: 8 Town Meeting Members, a total of 3 openings between the School Committee and Select Board combined, 2 Library Trustees, 1 Moderator, 1 Oliver Smith Will Elector, and 80% of the time 1 Redevelopment Authority Member and 1 Housing Authority Member. In total, that’s a minimum of 15 and, in a typical year, 18 offices on the ballot. But, that doesn’t count mid-term vacancies. Last spring these vacancies increased the number of offices on the ballot to between 19 (Precincts 1, 6, 9 and 10) and 23 (Precinct 4).
Then, every 10 years, you also add in another 16 vacancies in each precinct, for a total of at least 31, but more likely 33 or 34, offices on the ballot.
The current system can never be called simple. Terms of office differ across the ballot, sometimes even for the same “office.” There are, as with the new system, upwards of 20 vacancies to fill, but sometimes over 30. Many of the offices float between different numbers of vacancies depending on the year, so a voter can’t even count on a certain number of seats for a particular board always being open every year. The current system is complicated and not “user friendly”.
Simplicity is what the proposed charter is seeking. The proposed charter simplifies it to make it much more user-friendly and increases the ability of the voters to hold their elected officials accountable. That’s a tremendous improvement over the current system.