~ Submitted by Curt Dudley-Marling
Bedford Town meetings typically begin with the boast that the town meeting is a quintessentially democratic process. Monday night’s meeting illustrates the fallacy of this claim. To begin with, important decisions were made by less than 7% of eligible Bedford voters. The extension of the Minuteman Bikeway, for example, was blocked by fewer than 260 people (approx. 2 1/2% of eligible voters).
Some will argue that people make their own decisions to attend or not and, if they don’t attend, they forfeit their right to complain about decisions made at the Town Meeting. But even a turnout of less than 7% of Bedford voters nearly overwhelmed the facilities. There is no facility in or near Bedford that could accommodate a meaningful turnout.
Last night’s meeting also demonstrated another reality: it’s easier to mobilize opposition to an issue than support. We have no idea if the range of views expressed at the Town Meeting are representative of the town as a whole (I suspect they are not).
Arguably, the Town Meeting format lets voters hear what their fellow citizens think about an issue but there is no room for substantive debate (reading statements in front of a microphone is not debate).
And it’s not clear how much some at Monday’s town meeting really cared to hear from their fellow citizens. Debate on the Bikeway extension was ended while more than 30 people were standing in line waiting for their turns to comment on the bikeway article.
I believe it is time to give up the conceit that the Town Meeting is some pure form of democracy. It is not.
It is past time to transfer the authority vested in the Town Meeting to the Bedford Select Board who we have elected to make the best decisions on our behalf. It isn’t a perfect democratic forum but it is far more democratic than Town Meetings which too easily devolves into a tyranny of the minority.