Lynnfield tries to add town meeting attendees by reducing its quorum

LYNNFIELD – It’s Monday, May 2, the second night of town meeting, and residents are gathered in the auditorium of Lynnfield Middle School to consider two articles left over from the previous week. Things are supposed to start at 7:30 p.m., but 10 minutes later there are only 139 people in the room, far short of the 175 needed to make a quorum. Town moderator John Redman sends out a plea, via community access cable, for more citizens to show up. By 7:54, the count is up to 153. With nearly a half an hour already wasted, Harry Le Cours, chairman of the board of selectmen, makes a motion to adjourn town meeting sine die, with no date for reconvening. Groans fill the room and Le Cours is asked to withdraw his motion. At 8:15, persistence pays off when several people are retrieved from a meeting of the Capital Facilities Maintenance Committee at Town Hall. With 176 voters in attendance, town meeting is finally ready to begin. But if the town hadn’t changed its rules a few weeks before, it would still be about 60 people short of a quorum. As Lynnfield and other towns are discovering, even with a lower bar it’s a struggle to round up enough voters to conduct business.

ntil recently, participation in Lynnfield had been high enough for the town to maintain one of the toughest quorum requirements in the state: 3 percent of the voting population, a figure that fluctuated between 230 and 260 people. (Most towns with quorums use constant numbers rather than percentages of the electorate, and few of them set the bar above 100.) While declining attendance spurred other towns to lower their quorums – or eliminate them altogether – the citizens of Lynnfield had, until this spring, repeatedly voted down proposals to follow suit. The turning point may have been a relatively new argument: that a lowered quorum is not necessarily an admission of defeat but instead a means to boost participation.

“We talked to a lot of different communities that had lowered their quorum requirement, and found that town meeting attendance actually improved,” says town administrator William Gustus. “People were afraid of the very thing that could possibly happen, which is for only 10 people to show up and make the decisions for all of us.”

According to the Massachusetts Municipal Association, 263 communities in the Bay State hold open town meetings (see Head Count, page 28), and many have had to adjust their rules as a result of declining participation.

“[Over] the past five years or so, there have been a number of communities that have continued to lower their quorum levels,” says Victor DeSantis, director of the Institute for Regional Development at Bridgewater State College, who has published several studies on town meeting procedures. “We now have quite a number of communities across the Commonwealth that have no quorum whatsoever.”

Those towns include Andover, Concord, Groton, and North Reading, according to local officials – and Lynnfield itself had no quorum until it was included in the town charter adopted in 1971.

“Nobody would want to have all the business of town conducted by one or two single neighbors,” DeSantis says. “That is the proponent argument for the no-quorum level.” Still, as a tool for motivating attendance, he says, it could be viewed as a “scare tactic.”

Tinkering with quorums is not the only way to attack the problem of declining participation. Some say more could be done to make town meeting fit people’s busy schedules, and a few towns, including Andover and Concord, have instituted free or low-cost baby-sitting services to make attendance easier for families with small children.

But if there’s a silver bullet for boosting attendance, not even towns with crowded town meetings know what it is. Take Uxbridge, where town meeting is often packed and voters sometimes have to sit in other rooms to watch the meeting on closed-circuit television.

“I don’t know, I guess maybe it’s just issue-driven,” says town clerk Holly Gallerani. “We’re just pretty well attended.”

In Clinton, town clerk Phillip Boyce has seen town meeting attendance go up and down over the years. “It depends on what’s on the articles,” he says.

ynnfield has seen spikes of interest in town meeting, but in recent years, it had become more and more difficult to gather a quorum, and the frequent late starts and reschedulings began to wear on citizens – and on town treasuries.

“It costs money if you have to come back a second or third time,” says Phillip Boyce, town clerk of Clinton, who favors a zero quorum but hasn’t yet gotten one in his town. “Towns were spending an awful lot of money to put on events that they were having to continually reschedule,” agrees DeSantis. “With a lower quorum level, it’s more likely that the business of town government would be conducted.”

The first attempt to lower the quorum requirement in Lynnfield came in 1971, just months after the 3 percent rule was put into place. Four years later, a proposal to eliminate the quorum altogether lost a townwide vote by a margin of 1,429 to 584. Two more attempts to lower the quorum failed during the 1990s. Then the problem got worse: Town meetings were postponed or canceled due to the lack of a quorum at least once every year from 2000 through 2004. And even when there were enough voters to get things started, people would stream out of town meeting as it wore on, forcing early adjournments.

“I think it was at that point that people finally understood that we [had] to do something,” says Gustus.

The board of selectmen leaned toward doing away with the quorum entirely, but that proposal didn’t seem to have popular support.

“I think the voters were just shocked from such a radical change,” says Lynnfield moderator John Redman. “It was finally agreed upon to go to 175.”

The lower quorum was put on the ballot for the April 11 town election and passed by a margin of 300-263. It took effect in time for the annual town meeting two weeks later.

Redman speculates that voters finally saw the high quorum as working against those who were doing their civic duty. “It was unfair to the people that showed up to stick around for a half an hour or 40 minutes and then be sent home,” he says.

There have been only two sessions of town meeting since the quorum change, so it may be premature to say whether it has helped to boost turnout. According to Town Clerk Pam Carakatsane, there were 584 people at the April 25 meeting, but Redman attributes this high turnout to the issues on the agenda.

“There was a controversial article about ‘feeing’ the trash, so that brought out a lot of people,” he says. “Typically, we’ve not had a problem with attendance if there’s something that gets the voters’ appetites whetted.”

Gustus agrees. “What brings people to town meeting are articles that interest them,” he says. “If there are important issues that are being decided, you are not going to have any problem getting a sizeable number of people to show up.”

Perhaps Lynnfield has solved its participation problem, but if town meetings continue to be postponed or cancelled, the idea of further reducing the quorum, or doing away with it entirely, is sure to arise again. And that bothers some defenders of a centuries-old New England institution.

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“We arguably have the grandest form of democratic structure with town meeting, and yet because of lack of participation, we keep having to lower the quorum levels,” says DeSantis. “You’re basically admitting that the town meeting’s single virtue” – that is, its openness to all – “is not a virtue at all.”

“I think it’s going to continue to be a challenge,” says Gustus. “People’s lives are very busy. Town meeting is a somewhat cumbersome way to do business, but I think, at least for this town, that the best decisions get made from town meeting. I think that’s the consensus in the community.”