Letter to the Editor: A Call for Participatory Local Government

January 8, 2021

Submitted by Jacinda Barbehenn

We have been inundated and consumed with the politics of our democracy at the national level for the last year or more. But what of the local level? Former MA Congressman and Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil, famously said “All politics is local.” By extension, if our democracy is to thrive at the national level, it must also thrive at the local level.

Bedford’s “Open Town Meeting” form of government, is a “direct democracy” – every resident registered voter has a say and vote at Town Meeting. While we rightly take great pride in this tradition, it does not afford the individual voting resident much power or influence regarding the direction and creation of town policy. That work is done well in advance of discussions that take place on Town Meeting floor—in committees and board meetings throughout the year – when the greatest impact can be had.

Every year in March we hold elections for the boards of our town – Select, Planning, School, Health, Library, and Housing Authority. Between 2000 and 2020 there have been 172 elections on the ballot, but only 37 competitive races. What does it say about our local democracy to have so few competitive elections—only 21% of the time? That we have “elected” officials in town that rarely or have never faced opposition? It means that our boards and their members operate using what they believe to be in the best interests of our town, not necessarily the actual needs and wishes of residents.

In a democracy, we vote for leaders to represent us and our ideas. It is during the election campaign that open and frank conversation takes place between constituents and potential board representatives. This is where accountability to residents’ needs and desires are born. After that, it is assumed that our elected representatives will work in the best interests of the voters, balancing our needs and wishes, learned while campaigning, with any compromising at the board level that needs to happen in order to get the work done for the greater good. Competitive elections, whether for an open seat or with an incumbent board member, are a necessary part of a healthy democracy.

January 21st is the deadline to submit forms to run for office this coming March. Please consider participating – by running for an office yourself. You do not need any particular expertise to be on a board; you only need to be willing to learn, listen to your fellow residents, and work on their behalf if elected. Democracy is not about winning or losing. It is about being heard and having choices. Without participation in Bedford, we do not have a choice. And without choice, we do not have democracy in our town.

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