Town should fold on five

When Manchester's residents and taxpayers convene for the floor meeting of the municipal portion of town meeting, they will get to debate and vote on an interesting article that we hope will be defeated.

Article Five will ask the town's voters to decide whether or not funding requests greater than $2,500 that are considered aid to social services should be determined by Australian ballot at the polling booth, not voted up-or-down from the floor of Town Meeting. Historically, many local organizations seeking to do good works have come before the townspeople at the annual gathering in early March and sought public financial support. More often than not, such requests are routinely voted through with little debate. Often, the same organizations appear year after year, with usually similar amounts of requested funding. Sometimes such requests prompt a short debate. On occasion, they prompt a longer one.

The point is, they can prompt a discussion. While many of these votes are ritually automatic, it's better when townspeople get to hear why that money is needed. It's also a signal when an organization requesting money fails to send a representative to explain why that money is needed; not a good way to curry favor.

In some ways, you could argue that it would make more sense to vote amounts smaller than $2,500 at the ballot box, and mandate that amounts larger than that be voted off the floor. Smaller amounts, in theory, have a smaller tax impact and are therefore less consequential. But either would be a step backwards from participatory democracy.

The main argument for Australian balloting is that more people have a chance to participate in the decision-making. In some cases, that's a practical solution. We couldn't elect a President off a floor meeting, or make decisions about important national or even statewide issues. At the very least, that would be time-consuming and inefficient. At some point in the future, technology might offer a solution for that, but we're not there yet. One of the advantages of living in a small state and a small town should be the ability to have a direct say in shaping public policy, even if a majority of your neighbors don't, in the end, agree with you. But there's a chance for dialogue. Voting off the floor at town meeting means everyone has a chance to cast an informed vote, after having heard the pros and cons.

Many people will do the research and arrive at the polls ready to cast an informed vote. Many others, we fear, don't or won't, and will vote without knowledge of the nuances. We all know that attendance at Town Meeting is at best a small percentage of the total number of eligible voters. There isn't a building in town that could hold them all if even half the eligible voters decided to make an afternoon of it at Town Meeting. At least three times as many - still a somewhat pathetic percentage, when you think about it - made it to the polls last year for Australian ballot voting compared to the smaller percentage (about 5 percent last year) that showed up for the floor meeting.

Attendance at town meetings tends to slip as towns get larger, and apparently there's a relationship between how long you've lived here and the importance you attach to attending town meeting. In the 21st century, even as so-called labor-saving devices like cell phones and electronic gadgets of all description have proliferated, we seem to be busier than ever, maybe because we can be busier. Taking four hours or more to sit through town meeting when there may be only a handful of items of interest may seem like a waste of time for many. And of course, many people can't go to town meeting because of work or childcare obligations Ñ or a host of other reasons. With a ballot, you can vote early, by absentee ballot, or at a time of day of your choosing.

Other than suggesting that four or so hours one afternoon a year is hardly a steep price to pay for democracy - and noting that in many countries, the very idea of a town meeting would be an anathema because the authorities are always right - town meeting is part of the glue that cements a town together. Yes, it's on the wane. It's not the same kind of central event that it was 100 or 200 or even 50 years ago. But it's still the closest thing we have left to an arena when any registered voter can ask the awkward questions and get an answer (hopefully). Town meeting shouldn't be preserved simply for reasons of nostalgia. It deserves its place because it serves a purpose. Stripping it of deciding votes on appropriation requests larger than $2,500 would diminish it further. It's a short step from there to saying that not only should appropriations above $2,500 be voted by Australian ballot to asking why not vote the entire town municipal budget - this year checking in at $4.7 million give or take - by Australian ballot. If the argument is for allowing more voters to weigh in because Australian ballot is a more flexible tool, then let's make that option available for the really big ticket item, and not worry so much about the smaller stuff.

That, of course, would be a horrible mistake. There is much contained within the town's budget and its spending plans that deserve scrutiny by the taxpayers and explanations from town officials in an open meeting where everyone can hear the arguments. But it's inconsistent to say we have to discuss and vote on the whole budget off the floor, but special appropriations that are to be added to the budget, if approved by voters, can be done at the ballot box at town hall. It won't be the end of the world if voters do pass Article 5, and it takes effect next year, but it's a step backward from a vanishing opportunity in modern political life.


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