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?
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.