Letter to the Editor: Is Bedford’s Town Meeting the Best Form of Democracy?

Submitted by Matt Porter

My first experience with Bedford Town Meeting was in 2022. I had never lived in a place where I could show up one day a year and become the “town legislature” where all functions of government, from the critical to the mundane, would be voted upon.

This experience was exciting and there was an amazing feeling of taking part in a communal act of government. Fellow residents praised the system as “democracy in its purest form.”

But is it?

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Over the past year, drawbacks of this unique form of government have become clear. Town Meeting is great for those with hours of time to devote, sometimes across multiple days. For the rest of the community — according to 20 years of TM records that’s more than 96% of voters —they have no representation in this critical process which determines everything from appropriating state funding for public projects, to education, safety, or other measures that could shape the community for decades. Instead, most meetings are made up of fewer than 500 of the 10,000+ voters.

Think of that, just a few percent of unelected people who have their own concerns and are accountable to no one make critical town decisions. The Select Board — which is elected — can craft the agenda, but they do not affect the final vote.

Some argue the 96% don’t deserve to have a voice because they “didn’t care” or “put in the effort” to attend. I would argue it is unreasonable to require people to devote multiple hours at a very specific time in order to have a voice. 

One proposed option is to find more “optimal times” (e.g., Saturday or Sunday mornings). But how does that help those working weekends or who have no childcare? Surely working families shouldn’t be excluded?

I write in support of what other towns have done. Let’s have a representative town meeting where the people who vote have been elected and are accountable to their community. If people want to come and speak, that should not be infringed. But the people who can’t make it are just as important. This town is not 96% apathetic. Over 1,300 people voted in this year’s elections, despite no contested races. That number is higher than any attendance at a Town Meeting in the last 20 years including last fall’s unprecedented 11% turnout.

Let’s make Town Meeting more democratic by giving everyone a voice.

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The opinions expressed in Letters to the Editor are those of the writer, not The Bedford Citizen.

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Patty Carluccio
July 2, 2023 11:35 am

To me Town Meeting is the best form of democracy. while some argue that “96% of residents don’t go” if we move to representative TM then “over 99% won’t go”. IMO this is not better. How can I be sure that a “representative” feels the way that I do about an issue? Only I can represent myself. Individual representatives, while they are “supposed to represent all of their constituents” can in no way do just that. There are too many opinions and life experiences that individuals have.
If we do go to representative TM then those of us that do not want others to represent us should be the actual representatives since we are willing to pay attention to the issues and show up to the meetings. I am happy to be a representative. Over the years I have proven on VCC that my willingness to support an open process of governance and inclusivity for all registered voters is of upmost importance. IMO committees with a variety of opinions and life experiences produce the best results. It’s supposed to be a bit sticky when different ideas are presented.
To me, all residents should have the ability to share their opinions whether we agree with them or not. And then we vote.

Erin Campbell
April 15, 2023 8:08 pm

There might be some modifications we could make so people who want to go can…. Perhaps always having the library available where folks could stand and stretch their legs would work. Could there be closed circuit TV so they could speak without needing to come down stairs? Perhaps certain articles are promised to begin at certain times so folks don’t need to spend all night there. I love OTM and see lots of ways it can continue to exist while allowing more folks to participate.

Angela W.
April 11, 2023 1:24 pm

The results of the Town Wide survey on Town Meeting were discussed at the Select Board meeting last night, and 60% of respondents were in favor of keeping Open Town Meeting, as opposed to less than 20% who want to change to a representative format. Seems like most people feel that OTM is working. Is it the best solution? Maybe not, but if you feel strongly about an issue, you should be able to make the time to attend one, possibly two nights a year, or twice a year in the event of STM to be heard and vote.

Chris Lennon
April 10, 2023 10:13 pm

I can understand the sentiment. On most articles I end up voting with the Select Board and FinCom recommendations. On the other hand, on those rare occasions where I find myself disagreeing with the town boards I really appreciate the opportunity to have a vote on a specific topic.

Nancy Wolk
April 10, 2023 6:03 pm

I absolutely would love a representative town meeting. Lexington handles this very well and people are far more represented than in Bedford.

April 11, 2023 12:06 am
Reply to  Nancy Wolk

Lexington’s model would result in less participation.

Lexington caps the number of Town Meeting participants at “no more than 203 members”. That’s 21 people for each of their 9 precincts. https://www.lexingtonma.gov/566/About-Town-Meeting

Lexington has about 34,500 residents. So that means a _full_ town meeting (which doesn’t happen in each session) has one representative covering about 170 people.

Bedford has four precincts and ~13,300 residents. (Let’s assume Precincts 2 and 2A are merged together b/c this is a local matter.)

Four precincts at 21 people each equals 84 reps or one rep per 159 residents.

Today, Bedford needs 100 folks at Town Meeting to have a quorum to conduct business. Lexington’s model means that we don’t even hit that mark. Increase the # reps per precinct, and increase the likelihood that we’ll have open seats.

Considering that the Town had uncontested elections this spring and several committees are understaffed, I don’t understand the rush to make it harder for people to participate.

Nancy Wolk
April 13, 2023 4:03 pm
Reply to  Marc

The idea of representative Town Meeting is that the TM voters would be able to hear from the area they represent. It’s shouldn’t be as simple as the TM representatives vote how they feel, but they should be talking to those they represent and having the discussions there.

And let’s be honest, OTM already makes it hard for people to participate.

Robin Steele
April 10, 2023 5:27 pm

Be careful what you wish for. Right now it is difficult to make Town Meeting but you can find a way if something is really important to you. As you can see from the empty spots on town committees and uncontested elections it is hard to get people to fill town volunteer positions. You have no idea who will represent you and if they have the same opinions and beliefs that you do. You are giving up your personal right and vote for someone to make a decision for you which I would not be willing to do. Open Town Meeting is the purest form of democracy.

April 10, 2023 4:32 pm

While I appreciate this look at the democratic process, this proposal seems to veer in the opposite direction of real democracy and toward what I see as the troublesome electoral process. True democracy, one person, one vote, is messy and time-consuming. But it allows for people to vote for the issues they want in the way they want.

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