By Keith Regan, Contributing Writer
Westborough – Selectmen took a few minutes during their March 22 meeting to review the recently completed Town Meeting – and the reviews were not good.
“We’ve got a real problem,” said Selectman George Barrette.
Although the meeting made a host of major policy and spending decisions, board member Bruce Tretter noted that while attendance March 12 topped 200 voters, fewer than 150 helped finish the 40-article warrant the nights of March 14 and 15.
Barrette noted that a small number of residents seem to regularly dominate discussions and extend the meeting unnecessarily.
“People watch on TV and hear people monopolizing discussion and think ‘I can’t be bothered by that,’” he noted.
During the Saturday daytime session, when electronic voting devices were not in operation, voters managed to make their way through just nine articles in four hours before breaking for dinner. Debate waged for over an hour on multiple individual articles and several voters stood to raise questions for which answers could be found in the fine print of the warrant itself or in the printed recommendations of various committees.
“We have 11,000 registered voters, which means that about 1 percent of voters made a lot of big decisions,” Tretter said.
The board plans to meet with Town Moderator John Arnold at its next meeting in early April to discuss how the meeting went and ways to improve it.
Selectman Leigh Emery said she would like to see more town officials come to the meeting in business attire, reflecting their role as the community’s professionals. She also wants committees to be urged to choose who they have present articles and arguments.
“Not everyone is a good public speaker,” she said.
Another point emphasized by the board was the need for residents to realize that in many cases months of work has gone into articles, often with multiple public meetings in the weeks leading to the meeting. Some of those meetings are now televised and available for viewing on demand from the town’s public access station.
Barrette plans to propose to Arnold that speakers be put on a time limit, suggesting a “shot clock” be considered and joking that “old basketball players never die they just go to Town Meeting.”
“Droning on and filibustering – for whatever reason – just doesn’t work,” he said.
Selectman Denzel Drewry said limiting speaking time may be difficult since some issues require more input and consideration than others.
Moreover, he added, the persistent poor turnout may suggest it’s time for Westborough to consider changing to a town council form of government. Council members could be elected by neighborhood, making it more likely that the average voter is connected to the decision-makers.
“I think it’s time,” Drewry said. “It’s just not working the way it should be. Period.”