The question of how to get more people to attend open town meetings is pretty much as old as that venerable form of legislative government itself. Recently the Mansfield Select Board had a discussion about it, and for the most part the results were predictable and ignored the real root of the problem.
Mansfield’s town meeting has a quorum requirement. At least 200 of the roughly 15,000 registered voters must attend before the body can conduct town business. That might seem a low threshold, but like other towns, Mansfield struggles to reach it. Meetings are often frustratingly delayed waiting for a quorum, and the average attendance is probably below 300. Only for controversial, emotional issues does it venture into slightly higher numbers.
Why so low? Well, some think it is the modern lifestyle. Some believe it is the wide range of competing entertainment options today. Others insist local officials haven’t made information about town meeting as accessible or easily understandable as they can and should.
Speaking from personal experience as someone who has been going to town meetings for over 45 years and run one as a town moderator for the last dozen, allow me to explain the mystery of why town meeting attendance in most communities is so low.
People. Don’t. Care.
Sorry, but it’s true. Most think gathering in a school auditorium on a weeknight to discuss the details of budgets approaching $100 million is boring, pointless and a waste of time. And they are not wrong.
Unless there is an override question, a zoning amendment that personally affects them, or they have some direct personal interest in something being voted on — town meeting is simply not going to attract many voters. That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. Don’t take my word for it. Just look at local attendance numbers.
Yet unfailingly, one of the first solutions many put forth to the problem of citizens not going to meetings is to offer to hold more meetings to entice them to go to the meeting. Really?
While no doubt motivated by a real desire to make things better, those suggesting this show a misunderstanding of the problem. There is more information available today than at any time in history. Just by touching their phones or sitting at their computers, voters can access more information in a few seconds than earlier generations could in a month or more. But you have to want to see it.
What voters really want is the opportunity to elect town officials to decide these things, and then un-elect them if they don’t like the job they have done. They don’t want to spend their valuable time rubber-stamping budgets that in practicality have already been decided before the meeting.
Eliminate the quorum, Mansfield. There is no magic in the number 200. Let whoever cares enough to show up at town meeting vote.
Then elect a charter commission, and move to a town council/town manager form of government like most of the country has.
People are not the problem. It’s the system. You can’t make local government better if you aren’t willing to change what is really the problem.