Wellesley’s Representative Town Meeting form of government is touted for giving a strong voice to the community in legislative matters, but also has its downsides, including meetings that take place over a matter of weeks and average three-plus hours apiece, and for articles that can be difficult to understand.
Motion 1 under Article 24 on this year’s Town Meeting warrant, brought by the Select Board at the request of Town Moderator Mark Kaplan, raised the possibility of forming a 5-member Town Meeting Operations Study Committee to review the operations of Town Meeting by looking at its guidelines, town bylaws, etc., including the length of the moderator’s term, electronic voting benefits and drawbacks, and the length of time that people can speak.
(Discussion starts at about the 3-hour, 13-minute mark of the Wellesley Media recording of Town Meeting Night #3.)
A report would be delivered to the next Town Meeting after being submitted to the Select Board and moderator.
In introducing the motion, Select Board Chair Tom Ulfelder noted that the guidelines for Wellesley Town Meeting haven’t been updated since 1974. “It is past time when a review is both necessary and appropriate to ensure that Town Meeting is operating in a manner best suited to serve the town’s interests,” he said.
The Advisory Committee voted 11-0 in support of the motion, which includes establishment of a committee that would evaluate extending the moderator’s tenure from 1 to 3 years.
During the following discussion, more than a dozen Town Meeting members posed questions about how such a study group might be formed and make decisions. One asked about whether such a group could make a decision that would wind up limiting Town Meeting debate. Others wondered why the group might have five members, suggesting having at least one to represent each of eight precincts might make sense (Moderator Kaplan said he came up with five based on his understanding that that’s how many the previous study committee had). Concerns were also expressed that such a group would need to have both experienced and newer Town Meeting members, while one member asked what problem the proposal would be trying to fix.
Town Meeting Member Jared Parker said “In theory, Mr. Moderator, I’m in favor of such a thing, except not when I’m given a reason of ‘because that’s what we did in 1974.’ I think if we’re really going to try to effect change and study this, all representatives from all precincts should be around.”
Regarding a question about legislative guardrails on what such a committee could recommend, Ulfelder emphasized that “the guardrails are that you can’t make changes without the approval of Town Meeting. I think that is the ultimate control. A committee could c0me up with a series of recommendations that Town Meeting flat out rejects.”
Town Meeting Night #3 ended with Ulfelder suggesting that the Board digest the input given on the motion by Town Meeting members and consider working it for the next night. The meeting adjourned, and indeed, Ulfelder started things off on Night#4 (at about the 7-minute, 30-second mark of the Wellesley Media recording) by announcing that the Select Board voted unanimously to withdraw the motion shortly beforehand.
“Town Meeting is a remarkable example of New England democracy,” he began, “precisely because its 240 members—no matter who we are and what we do—are equal. Everyone is no greater than 1/240th of the vote in the Wellesley Town Meeting. We heard from many of you loud and clear when you articulated the concerns and suggestions that you all had to the direction of any such study committee and its scope, and breadth, and composition, and we take those opinions very seriously.
“We also believe that there is no value in going forward in such an exercise unless there is an absolutely clear consensus and broad support for the composition, the depth of the work to be performed, and the breadth and the scope of what would be included. Therefore we realized we need to reconfigure how we might approach this with the input from Town Meeting and go forward at a future date.”
(Yes, we are playing some Town Meeting catch-up due to us being away recently. Town Meeting Night #5 (April 11) ended with a vote on Article 41 Motion 1. Night #6 will pick up with Article 39, on accessory dwelling units (it was pushed until later in Town Meeting to accommodate anticipated discussion in light of several motions to amend), and Article 45, a citizen petition on academic excellence.)