Lessons - and questions - learned from Tisbury's marathon meeting
If recent town meetings were compared to running events, Edgartown's would be a sprint, West Tisbury's and Oak Bluffs's road races, and Tisbury's a marathon. Lasting 10-plus hours over three nights, Tisbury's town meeting definitely required voters who could go the distance.
Four towns held annual town meetings on April 10, the Island's "super Tuesday." Edgartown voters clipped through 67 warrant articles in about two hours. West Tisbury paced through 45 articles in 4 hours. In Oak Bluffs, town meeting finished a close second, with 22 articles dispatched in about 4 hours and 45 minutes, although it carried over to a second night because of a lengthy special town meeting that preceded it.
Many Tisbury voters said it was the first time they could recall their town meeting lasting three nights. However, town clerk Marion Mudge recalled that when Tisbury used to hold two town meetings to deal separately with spending and non-spending articles, oftentimes both would go two nights and occasionally three.
This year, at the request of Tisbury's finance and advisory committee (FinCom), the selectmen put spending requests over $10,000 into proposition 2.5 override articles. As a result, the number of warrant articles was somewhat deceptive, Ms. Mudge pointed out. Several of the 35 articles contained multiple items requiring separate votes. An article for funding capital appropriations and other new equipment, for example, contained 15 items requiring separate votes.
After her first three-night town meeting in eight years as Tisbury's town moderator, Deborah Medders said she took time as she always does to analyze how it went and learn something she can apply to the next one.
"I think by the time the second night came and went and we were looking at a third night, I was asking myself, why are we just two-thirds of the way through the warrant?" Ms. Medders recalled. "It wasn't because of long debate that had become ad nauseum. It was because town meeting floor was going to ask questions to be informed enough, or people had commentary or oratory above and beyond."
Although state statute grants her absolute control over the proceedings, Ms. Medders said she interprets her job as maintaining decorum and flow. When it comes to judging how much time to allocate to discussion, she said she takes her cue from the floor.
"Tisbury's town meeting floor, historically, wants to hear as much information as there is to be had," Ms. Medders explained. "As people begin to tire of dialogue and debate, they'll start rustling papers, they'll start engaging in conversation with their neighbor sitting next to them, or there will be that person who will say, call the question."
Despite many lengthy discussions on all three nights, Ms. Medders said, "I did not at any time hear anyone ever do that, even on those articles where we were an hour plus into it with no indication of people slowing down."
Although some Massachusetts towns have a time limit on town meeting debate, Ms. Medders said no one in Tisbury has ever suggested that. Discussion on an article to allow the town to undergo the legislative process to allow licensing for beer and wine sales, for example, lasted an hour and 40 minutes.
While some voters asked questions about the legislative process, specific to the article itself, most voiced opinions about whether or not alcohol sales would help the town's economy or change its character.
Ms. Medders said she could have narrowed the discussion to the legislative process instead of the pros and cons of allowing beer and wine. "But sometimes it's apparent, and unless the floor feels differently, I will respect the perspective town meeting is being used as a forum to offer up one's own personal thought or position," she explained.
Although the end result was a longer meeting, Jeff Kristal, owner of the Crocker House Inn and former Tisbury Business Association president, credited voters for thoroughly examining the issues and asking well-thought questions.
"The vote on beer and wine proved people didn't have their minds made up going in," Mr. Kristal said. "It was a good dialogue. I don't think we can replace that by shortening the meeting from three nights to one."
However, in retrospect, maybe Tisbury should introduce debate issues on some articles beforehand, suggested former FinCom chairman George Balco. "I thought the moderator worked hard at that, but after 10 hours, I was pretty beat, as was everybody else over 30," he said.
Mr. Balco has long advocated for the selectmen to take a position on a majority of articles as a group, as a show of town leadership. "The selectmen should be taking positions strongly and not standing up and saying, 'I think, but I don't know about my colleagues'. They should be saying, 'We think,'" Mr. Balco said.
Art Flathers, a keen observer of local politics, said his attendance on Wednesday, the second night, reinforced his view that town meeting needs more preparation. Mr. Flathers said he has felt for a long time that Tisbury does not prepare the warrant and educate the voters in advance about the facts and background of the articles as well as it should.
"The town owes it to the public to get them informed about what the town meeting is all about, every article," Mr. Flathers said.
The selectmen also need to play the role of "select," he added, which they did not demonstrate by putting so many articles into proposition two and a half overrides.
Selectman chairman Tristan Israel said although the selectmen worked with the FinCom to put forth the override articles, looking towards the future, the town might have to face a general override.
"We were concerned about the town's level of free cash, even though the town's overall financial picture is good," Mr. Israel said. "We wanted to put red flags up, and make people take notice. Having said that, there were things at town meeting that didn't pass, some that I wanted."
Mr. Israel added he couldn't remember a town meeting that had so many important issues packed into one warrant. "I think the people that attended should be applauded for patience and persistence," he said.
In response to the criticisms, town administrator John Bugbee said, "Next year, we'll try to disseminate information far in advance of town meeting, so that hopefully a lot of the factual data regarding the articles can be sent to the voters. That way, if a lot of factual questions are answered beforehand, it may hone down some of the questions at town meeting."
However, Mr. Bugbee pointed out, in a year when town government was trying to be mindful of expenditures, sending out booklets with all of the warrant information to every voter in town would not be cheap. "It's a catch-22 - we have to do a cost-benefit analysis," Mr. Bugbee said. "Maybe the cost is worth the time savings in exchange. We'll have to go back and see what we can improve for next year."