To the Editor:
Last Tuesday evening West Tisbury voters spent $100,000 per minute to fund our town and schools. It was surely a model of efficiency in conducting a public meeting. What was sometimes missing was sufficient information about what we were voting on; healthy debate; and a deliberative process that leads to good decisions. The scramble to get through 40 or so articles before losing a quorum (fewer than 10 percent of the electorate was in attendance to begin with) was palpable, and created an atmosphere where folks were reluctant to slow the process down with a question or comment. I am dismayed far more by the process than by the spending.
I’m a still-damp wash-ashore, steeped in decades of messy but rewarding experience of government in a small New Hampshire town. We usually had double the voter turnout of what appears to be typical on Martha’s Vineyard — the combination of miserly state aid to education and lack of second-home tax base meant we were spending our own money (the tax rate is over four times higher than that in West Tisbury, but houses are worth less.)
To encourage turnout and adequate discussion of the issues, Plainfield, N.H., conducts two separate meetings, one for the school district, conducted by the school committee, and one for the town, conducted by the selectmen. Both begin at 10 am on two successive Saturday mornings in March. Childcare is provided so people with families can participate. Various youth groups fundraise with home-baked goodies to keep the attendees’ energy levels up. The moderator announces each article, asks for a motion, and recognizes a person to move the article. The proponent reads the article, then explains and advocates for it. The moderator then opens discussion. Townspeople and officials are dedicated to a process that is sometimes contentious but always civil. Most important, they demonstrate a fierce commitment to ensure all who want to speak are heard. Sometimes after a question is asked, and the answer is plainly insufficient or confusing, the moderator will ask the questioner, Did that answer your question? At this point perhaps someone else might furnish the desired information. The result is robust discussion, and in frugal Yankee fashion, could lead to an amendment that often reduces the funds committed.
Accordingly, I offer the following and move its adoption: That the Town of West Tisbury conduct town meeting and school district meeting on two separate Saturdays, with childcare provided, and that its citizens rededicate themselves to an information-rich, participatory process that results in wise expenditure of our resources. Further to this article, an explanation of rationale for each article shall be written and posted on the town website at least two weeks in advance of each meeting, so that the citizens may educate themselves prior to attending.