Two More Towns Scuttle Town Meeting

Seldom does one hear the argument that since the state legislature doesn’t work very well, we should do away with it. Seldom does a city saddled with a clownish city council entertain the notion that the council should be abolished.

But in local politics the town meeting form of government is always open to question. Does it still “work”? Or is it a laborious legacy of the 17th Century, ill-suited to the rapid rhythms of modern living?

Since the adoption of the Home Rule Amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution in 1966, towns have had the ability to design and revise their own municipal charters, without approval from the state legislature. Over the last 30 years, the number of towns retaining a town meeting has gradually dropped.

This summer, Easthampton and Amesbury became the latest communities to do away with the town meeting. Both towns elected a mayor and a town council to replace the Board of Selectmen and representative town meeting.

Yet the drop-off has not been precipitous. Out of 351 municipalities in Massachusetts, there are still 303 holding annual town meetings. Of these, 262 communities hold open town meetings, (in which any registered voter may attend and vote), while 41 hold representative town meeting, (in which members are elected by precinct).

Under state law, towns with fewer than 6,000 residents are required to have an open town meeting form of government. Towns with more than 12,000 residents have had the option of incorporating as cities ever since Boston became a city in 1822, when its population reached 43,000. What has changed since the Home Rule Amendment is the emergence of a new kind of local government that takes the form of a city while clinging to the vestiges of townhood. These are the queer ducks known as “cities that call themselves towns”–as in, “The City known as the Town of …”

Agawam was the first to move in this direction, adopting a home rule charter in 1971 that replaced the Board of Selectmen and town meeting with a town council of 15 members. (In 1988, the charter was amended to replace the town manager with an elected mayor.) Following Agawam, eight other communities have become cities that call themselves towns: Methuen, Southbridge, Franklin, Watertown, Greenfield, Barnstable, and now Easthampton and Amesbury.

Is a movement afoot? Not in the view of Marilyn Contreas, a municipal policy analyst with the state who follows charter changes as closely as anyone in Massachusetts. Ms. Contreas maintains that towns that have moved to councils have usually done so for reasons specific to those towns–and often the reason has as much to do with local politics as philosophy of government.

Amesbury is a textbook example of what can happen when officials become embroiled in protracted political infighting. Situated just miles from the New Hampshire border, Amesbury has been a far cry from the kind of Massachusetts town where sentimentalists get misty about the townsfolk coming together to participate in self-government.

The town has had nine town managers come and go in the last 15 years, according to former Selectman Tom Iacobucci, who led the fight to move to a mayor-council form of government. The problems between Selectmen and the array of town managers led to an ugly firing of the police chief in 1991, which led to a long-running legal battle (and the reinstatement of the chief). Citizens petitioned to create a charter commission in 1995, and the new charter was approved in April of this year. By most accounts the town meeting was an incidental factor in the dissatisfaction with local government. As Town Assessor Henry Fournier, who led the campaign against the new charter, explains it, the Board of Selectmen “got in the middle of the debacle with the police department and really put the town in a downward spiral for several years.”

Mr. Iacobucci agrees that the town meeting was not the central problem, but says it wasn’t much of a blessing, either. “We didn’t have a real democratic process there,” he says, noting that the 108 members of town meeting customarily met only twice a year, for one night in May and one night in November.

“The idea of it, yes, I support it,” he says of town meeting. “But it just wasn’t working in Amesbury.”

For some in town, there is the feeling that something has been lost with the end of the town meeting. “It was kind of sad to have our last one in May,” says Town Clerk Brenda Roy. Yet the vote to change the charter had solid support: 2085 wanted the change, while 1610 were against it in the April election, which had a 50 percent turnout.

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Mr. Iacobucci says local government has been modernized and he expects the new mayor, Nicholas Costello, and the nine-member council (to which Mr. Iacobucci was elected) to restore confidence among Amesbury residents. Mr. Fournier isn’t so sure. “Town meeting was more democratic, and likely to be more conservative and less likely to spend taxpayers’ money,” he maintains.

It’s a debate that pops up in most Massachusetts towns from time to time, as residents try to balance what is democratic with what is effective. Yet there is nothing like the spectacle of a town hall beset by ugly infighting to make philosophical arguments about the virtues of citizen participation seem beside the point. The case of Amesbury may suggest that one of the greatest threats to the town meeting tradition is not the fast pace of modern life nor the decline in civic engagement, nor the many other social changes often cited, but rather having a fractious or ineffective Board of Selectmen at odds with the town manager.