Make town meetings more efficient


To the Editor:

I’m writing to support Dean Rosenthal regarding his Letter to the Editor about town meetings on the Vineyard (“Important articles should come sooner at town meeting,” April 24), and to offer my own thoughts, based on experience.

I was a year-round resident in 2016, when Chilmark hosted a meeting that lasted more than four hours. The selectmen held back the primary issue that drew the standing-room-only crowd until the end of the night, despite requests to move it to the top of the agenda so more people could participate in the debate and vote on it. A slew of minor, essentially administrative warrant items related to town funding were imposed on the meeting for the first several hours. Needless to say, a lot of people gave up on waiting for the main event, and left.

At the beginning of the night, a young mother asked the primary issue to be brought to the voters first — so she could get home to her daughter on a school night (Tuesday). I watched the select board dismiss her concerns, after which I chimed in to petition for a vote. The moderator griped at me, and a few others joined him in an apparent bid to shame me into sitting down and shutting up. But I remained steadfast, and he called for a show of hands. Yay, I thought. The voters will obviously side with what makes sense for everyone’s benefit. But the majority of hands raised were to keep the docket “as was.” It was, as they say, disappointing. Whether the messenger or the message was the issue, there seemed to be a general allergic reaction to literally changing the order of things.

By the time the meeting turned to the pressing issue everyone had turned out for, it was after 11 pm. The crowd had thinned to the point that the vote — to finally put an end to a relentless and costly legal challenge to the Squibnocket Causeway — barely passed. My own parents, well on in years, couldn’t hang in there any more, and had to leave just minutes before the two critical vote(s).

This is just one silly example of townspeople being unable to have their voices and votes count because of an unproductive status quo. I can almost hear the unspoken groupthink: “It’s how we’ve always done things around here.”

My understanding is that some Islanders, both in and outside of town government, have tried to impress upon Town Parents that it’s time for a more “user-friendly” structure for meetings, but that such attempts have been futile. Here’s a wild and crazy idea: How about online and/or early voting for the items conducive to an “up-or-down vote” that don’t involve debate? It would be hard to imagine that in 2024, it’s beyond the technical capabilities of Vineyard towns to, for example, implement an option for residents to register an online account with their town. They could then log in and vote online on the multiple mundane warrant items that tend to chew up people’s bandwidth. If we can vote for those items on our own time, in the week or so before the town meeting, towns can just post the results of those tallies at the in-person meeting. (Can’t they?)

Save the in-person meeting time for people to weigh in on controversial or contested items. I don’t see any reason that final votes can’t be cast on or before 9 pm (which some of us call “Chilmark midnight” for a reason!). If the meetings can start by 6:30 pm and focus on a short list of high-interest articles, that should encourage the kind of broader resident participation I hear so many people complain is lacking. If islanders want the next generation to get involved, why not make it less burdensome for people to participate? That’s not too radical, is it?

Meeting structures like the one I described are undemocratic and exclusionary. Stop forcing citizens to sit through hours of noncontroversial warrant articles being read out like endless dates in a bad history class. Much antigovernment sentiment — in a nation that is supposed to be self-governing — lies in clunky, overly bureaucratic operations like this.

When you attract a crowd, it means people are invested in participating in the issues that require debate. Why not celebrate that with a meeting approach to meet the moment? Most of us know it’s part of the citizen drill to vote on humdrum items, but taking hours off our clock time for that — when you don’t have to — can frankly feel kind of abusive. There may generally be a higher volume of warrant articles at meetings these days than in, say, 1864. The solution is to adapt to the times: Implement processes that encourage participation, instead of holding tightly to rigid, anachronistic practices.


Anne Cook