A blimp hovering around the town for a week, presenting visual messages. A reverse 9-1-1 call to every resident. Napkins at Bedford Farms featuring printed reminders.
The Select Board’s recent survey of residents on various Town Meeting procedures and processes elicited a wide and sometimes entertaining variety of responses.
But the only significant conclusion was widespread acceptance of the Open Town Meeting system.
There were 651 responses to the survey, which Town Manager Sarah Stanton stressed was not a scientific poll. There were many areas for which there was no consensus, she added.
A majority of those who participated have lived in Bedford for at least 25 years. About half of the respondents said they attend Town Meeting always or often.
“Some of the suggestions as to how to make things easier we are already doing,” pointed out Select Board member Emily Mitchell. “We have folks who are deeply committed to open town meeting. And then we have people who say, ‘I already am disenfranchised.’ I feel that frustration.”
“I think it’s important that we went through the exercise,” said board member Shawn Hanegan. “There is no clear mandate,” observed member Paul Mortenson, adding, “Inertia is a powerful force. We should keep considering good suggestions.”
Asked about preferences for Town Meeting days and times, Monday evenings – the current default – was the most popular, but there were also other choices.
“I wonder if we could consider doing Annual Town Meeting on Monday and Special Town Meeting on a Saturday,” Hanegan mused. “It’s no magic bullet, but something we can work with.”
There were a number of reasons respondents gave on why they don’t attend Town Meeting, Stanton reported, ranging from Covid-19 risk to scheduling conflicts to caregiving responsibilities.
“This prompted a lot of options that are not legally viable,” Stanton continued. “We did get a lot of, ‘Can’t you make this hybrid?’ or, ‘Why can’t this be virtual?’ Anything other than in-person attendance is contrary to state law for Open Town Meeting, Stanton said, and “we are not going to create a new form of government for Bedford.”
Board member Margot Fleischman said she noticed some people who favor Open Town Meeting would like to add amenities available only to a representative format. That “doesn’t put us in any specific direction about improvements we can make.”
Stanton added that “there were some helpful suggestions about pre-town meeting education,” with one new resident observing that an initial town meeting experience can feel like entering a foreign country.
“I think there’s a role of the ambassador of town meeting,” Fleischman stated, recalling a fortuitous experience that helped her become acclimated to the process.
Select Board Chair Bopha Malone pointed out that the town has a number of civic and social organizations, and through them, the town may be able to deliver information.
There was little support for changing the form of government, Stanton said. She added that the biggest challenge inherent in the current system, at least theoretically, is if everyone eligible wanted to participate.
There was also evidence that some who responded “may not understand the process,” she continued. “There were a lot of comments encouraging things that don’t exist,” such as eliminating discussion on articles or placing every article on a ballot.
Then there was “our favorite piece of advice: provide more snacks.”