Norton voters on Saturday have the rare opportunity to make a meaningful and lasting impact on their municipal government.
We urge them to move their town out of its colonial past and into the 21st century by adopting the proposed charter on the ballot.
The charter commission elected two years ago has proposed doing away with the town form of government in place since Norton was founded in 1710.
That government puts a part-time board of selectmen in place as chief executive and has a traditional New England town meeting — essentially any voter who wishes to participate in sessions that are held two or three times a year — as the legislature.
In its place, a form of government growing more popular in Massachusetts has been proposed.
A nine-member town council would be elected to serve as the town’s legislature. Perhaps more importantly, the council would appoint and oversee a town manager, who will operate the municipal government on a day-to-day basis and serve as chief executive.
North Attleboro adopted just such a government blueprint two years ago; Franklin has used this type of government for decades.
The benefits are many. A strong town manager can more effectively assemble a spending plan that takes into account all of the town’s needs. With the council’s supervision, the town manager can appoint an effective team of town officials and better conduct long-range planning.
The town council would serve as an effective watchdog for the town manager while still being accountable to voters. The council would also be able to act more quickly than town meeting, allowing for more timely responses to town needs.
The charter commission also wisely proposed to merge such services as water, sewer and street maintenance into a single department of public works, falling in line with what has been effective in other Massachusetts communities.
A point of contention in Norton and in other communities has been the elimination of town meeting.
In the romantic version, a traditional New England town meeting allows all voters the right to stand up, say their piece and cast a ballot for the issues that directly affect them, such local matters as the quality of public schools, the conditions of streets and the amount of taxes they pay.
In reality, the vast majority of town meetings are sparsely attended, and only then by a handful of insiders with a stake in the vote. More importantly, town meetings are prone to “stacking,” allowing a neighborhood or groups such as public employees or parents of school-age children to get their wishes over the common good of the community.
No government blueprint is perfect, and there are bound to be issues that arise with Norton’s proposal. Those can be corrected.
However, we urge Norton voters on Saturday to take the bold step of moving their community out of the past.
The future citizens of Norton will thank you for it.