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Public doesn't attend town meeting

May 28, 2012
East Longmeadow's May 21st town meeting demonstrated the weaknesses of the Town Meeting format of government with today's uninformed and disinterested citizens.
Though The Reminder did its usual fine job of informing the voters about the Articles being proposed, only one-half of 1 percent of our approximate 11,000 registered voters showed up, allowing special-interest groups to dominate the discussions and prevail in several of the votes.
The discussions were full of exaggerations on both sides which made sorting out the facts very difficult. For example, the Planning Board warned that "if the Article 27 passed, every local day care center would be doubling in size." But it seems unreasonable to assume that more than a handful would actually decide to hire another licensed worker and increase their day care footprint and meet all the increased state requirements. Proponents and supporters of the day care expansions uniformly claimed there would "absolutely not be any increase in traffic." Maybe they thought the children would be teleported to and from the school.
A major weakness is the assumption that voters are informed. Actually, many of those present seemed to be partially informed only about the one or two issues that were important to them. But town officials often only briefly described the underlying reasons for several articles, which may have helped lead to losing the vote on a couple of issues.
Article 19 appeared to be simply a "housekeeping" item that comes up each year, but after the very briefest of explanations, and no discussion, it was surprisingly defeated. Discussion on the massage parlor issue went on and on, with only passing references to the explanation that it was the state's inaction that made the by-law change the town's only option to deal with the problem. Fortunately, the voters eventually understood and agreed.
Another weakness was the exposure of some lack of open and collaborative communication between the Board of Selectmen, the Planning Board, and the Department of Public Works (DPW) Board. Their squabbles were there for all to see. The Selectmen and the DPW were on opposite sides over the special water rate for farms.
The Selectmen and the Planning Board sparred over the Selectmen's effort to streamline the restaurant permitting process. Again, it wasn't clear until toward the end of a lengthy discussion that all changes a restaurant might wish to make still needed to be reviewed and approved by the Select Board, and was not a "free pass" of any kind. The article failed, and restaurants must continue to file and attend duplicate hearings any time they want to change a beer tap. Similarly, town spokesmen never adequately explained why the Independence Day Parade expense was bounced off the budget after being there for a number of years, and relegated as an article.
But the article proposing to repeal the stormwater basin by-law showed all the worst weaknesses of the meeting. This by-law was approved by last year's Town Meeting after a year's worth of time and energy by several town boards. This year,opponents of the by-law showed up and packed the house, and repealed the by-law. They did not seem to understand that their absolute legal liability remains unchanged by the vote. They are still legally required to maintain their storm basins, although now with much less support from the town. Failure of their storm basin can still result in federal government Environmental Protection Agency fines and liens on their property for any downstream damage caused by failure of their storm basin during a storm.
Although the DPW spokesman did list these facts, the DPW kept coming back to the "trust us" and "let us help you" appeal, which allowed opponents to raise the issue of the DPW's less-than-flexible handling of the Mill Road sewer line situation last fall, which still rankles many folks including me. That discussion also featured an appeal by a voter to table the article because she wasn't informed enough to vote properly! While many attendees groaned, it was another example of not enough background being offered by the town spokesmen as to the rationale for the bylaw in the first place. On the other hand, I think most of the town spokesmen did try very hard to explain issues, and I certainly feel that voters ought to bear some responsibility themselves for knowing what's going on. How frustrating this must be for the dedicated and hard-working volunteers on town boards.
I have been attending town meetings regularly for over 20 years now. It's tedious, but I accept it as a civic duty. But after 20 years, I would certainly be open to considering an alternative form of government. This one may have outlived its usefulness.
Pat Henry
East Longmeadow
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