Southborough aims to increase Town Meeting turnout

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By Susan Gonsalves, Contributing Writer

Town Meeting members hold up their red cards to vote during the Special Town Meeting on Nov. 1. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

SOUTHBOROUGH – The Southborough Select Board is hoping to find ways to increase participation at Town Meetings.

It started a discussion on that topic during a recent meeting on Dec. 7.

Next year’s Annual Town Meeting is currently slated for Saturday, March 26. But Select Board members recently weighed their options, which include changing that date. 

Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski said she is open to other options and understands the conflicts some families have expressed with school athletics running at the same time as town meetings.

Select Board member Martin Healey said the town could explore whether or not electronic participation is possible or legal. He said he believed other towns have used it. He said he believed they first had to get special dispensation from the legislature though.

Electronic participation was used by communities with representative Town Meeting, said Select Board Sam Stivers, which is unlike Southborough’s open format.

“People complain that 200 residents decide for 10,000 people,” Healey said. “But that’s who showed up. If we can increase that number, it’s only a plus.”

Stivers said he’s heard just as many complaints about holding meetings in the evening as he has about the option of holding meetings on Saturdays during the day. He said he hasn’t seen data that one option works better than the other.

“I’m not eager to change for change’s sake unless we have great comfort it will bring the desired result,” Stivers said.

Select Board member Andrew Dennington said that he is open to moving Town Meeting to a date later in the spring both for budgetary reasons and because it “takes time for ideas to percolate” when developing warrant articles.

Select Board Chair Lisa Braccio said on Dec. 7 that no decision was going to be made that night and that the Select Board could continue talking about this matter at future meetings. She said a future option may be to address the budget at a later spring session while putting other articles like zoning matters on a fall warrant. 

She also said that, for some, having an all-day Saturday meeting is too long.

Healey suggested that a Saturday Town Meeting should have a later start time to accommodate parents with conflicts due to school sports.

Beyond participation, Braccio noted that, with a March 26 date, there would be a six-week time frame between when town boards delve into budgets in January and when the warrant has to be printed.

She said, in addition to the time frame, state aid numbers are not available by March.

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