WESTBOROUGH, Mass. – Town Meeting could be described as one of the purest forms of democracy still practiced in the United States. It could also be described as an often long, arduous and at times frustrating way to legislate. March's double barrel – a special town meeting on building projects held between sessions of the annual, regular meeting, lurched into three days and totaled over 12 hours.
Now, Town Meeting Moderator Joseph Harrington is soliciting opinions from town government boards on ways to improve upon the experience.
The School Committee on Wednesday, April 11, said they would like to meet with Harrington. Harrington has already met with the Finance Committee, and said that their reception to his ideas to streamline the process was "quite cool."
In speaking with selectmen April 10, Harrington gave examples of methods employed by other towns, including having a time limit on any one article, and using a countdown clock to limit the length of time one could speak.
"We do have a bylaw on the books – I have not aggressively enforced this – where there are no more than two speeches allowed by any one person," he said.
According to Town Manager James Malloy, there were an even 100 speakers, one-third of which were town officials and 67 of which were residents.
Four and a half hours of Town Meeting were taken up by residents speaking. Three residents spoke for 20 percent of that time, with Vincent Borkowski holding the title for most time speaking.
However, the person who spent the most time at the microphone was Malloy himself, who said he spent 45 minutes discussing building projects alone.
Malloy said that enforcing the bylaws allowing a person to speak only twice per motion was "worth pursuing."
"I've had several residents come in since Town Meeting who said their concern is they go there to vote like in a polling place, and not listen to a handful of people preach for hours on end," Malloy said. "We had one person upset enough who left during the course of the meeting, and I doubt if they'd go back to Town Meeting. There are a handful of people who dominate Town Meeting and stretch it out as long as it does."
However, selectmen didn't seem keen on making dramatic changes to how the meeting is run.
"We're making million dollar decisions," said Selectman Denny Drewry, and so he "didn't have a problem" with prolonged discussion on important issues.
"The idea of a clock appeals to me, but I don't mind doing this stuff," said Selectman George Barrette. "It's difficult for some people to speak up at Town Meeting. I personally like it, but I don't think it's fair to Joe Voter."
Selectman Ian Johnson said he wasn't a fan of setting an absolute time limit, but said a better job could be done to expedite the meeting.
"Some articles are going to be more intense than others," Johnson said. "There were frustrating pieces to Town Meeting. If you're a proponent of open Town Meeting, a lot of this stuff comes with the territory. ... Maybe we're thinking too much about this."
Chair Leigh Emery said some of the onus may be on the moderator. "One of the things the moderator has to do is separate from when someone is just repeating a philosophical argument. ... This last meeting, we had several speakers who got up and introduced the same philosophical statement. We didn't need to hear it four times."