This week, I received some questions from Jeff Parenti, Billerica resident and local blogger at http://cantgettherefromhere.wordpress.com/.
My responses appear below Jeff’s questions:
1. In your campaign, you said you are interested in improving the quality of government. After the election (assuming there are no write-ins), there will be 45 total empty TM seats. In 8 of the 11 precincts, voters will not have a choice because there are more seats than candidates. Does lack of competition for TM seats hurt the quality of our government?
The assumption that there’s something wrong with the people in the 8 precincts that don’t have competition, that they somehow aren’t the best the precinct has to offer and that they negatively impact the quality of the decisions made by Town Meeting and the folks in the competitive precincts that get elected are the best the precinct has to offer and therefore make great contributions, isn’t one I’m willing to make. And I don’t think that’s exactly what you’re implying…For example, in my precinct, Precinct 4, I think we have some great representatives who bring a lot to the table yet we don’t usually have competition for the seats.
I do think there’s potentially something to be learned by examining the three precincts with competition. Who are the people running? Are there hot issues that affect their precinct more than others? Are there any lessons we can learn that could help cultivate the same type of activism in other precincts?
2. Of the 10 towns in Middlesex County with representative TM, only Reading (30%) had more projected empty TM seats than Billerica (19%) going into the election. Natick was one notch above with 13%. Our neighbor, Chelmsford, was best at 2% empty. Aside from less interest compared to other towns, it also looks like a trend over time: after the 2011 Billerica election TM was 13% empty and in 2010 it was 10% empty. Has it always been this way? How can we reverse this trend?
I don’t know what the statistics say but I know we’ve had a caucus for seats in my precinct every year since I was voted in by caucus in 2008. My suspicion is that the lead time to pull nomination papers and get them turned in gets away from some people who intend to run and they use the caucus process to get back in since it’s easier than trying to drum up ten signatures or more for a write-in campaign.
In terms of reversing the trend, I don’t know what motivates most people to get involved or stay involved. For me, it was a particular issue with my daughters’ school that drew me in and then I enjoyed participating so much that I ramped up my participation by applying to the Finance Committee. When the big issues in town do come up, I think we need to let people know that joining Town Meeting is a great opportunity to join the process and help develop solutions, much like former superintendent of school, Anthony Serio, pointed out to me.
3. Reading filled up all its empty seats on Election Day: 121 people appeared on ballots as write-ins (Reading only requires only one write-in vote to be elected.) Additionally, there is an article on the Reading Warrant (#22) that would reduce the number of TM seats from 192 to 144. It is time that Billerica thinks about doing the same? What would be the pros and cons of reducing the number of Billerica’s TM seats?
As the population of our town grows, reducing the number of representatives in Town Meeting doesn’t feel right to me. I’d rather see more outreach done to try and bring people into the process before we go down the path of shrinking the meeting. I don’t think we’ve done enough to try and bring people in. The Moderator can be part of that process but I don’t think the responsibility should be with the Moderator alone. Creating an outreach plan to bring more people in might be something to look at, much like your Keystone group aspires to do.
4. In 2010 the median age of Billerica TM was 55. Only 20% of TM was under the age of 45. Do we need more representatives in their 20s, 30s, and 40s? Why or why not?
We need people who care about the future of our town, regardless of their age. To say retirees don’t care about building schools or putting in sewer isn’t a universal assumption I’d be willing to make. I think many of the 55 and over representatives recognize that a generation or two before them built schools that they attended and their children after them. And the grandparents certainly want their grandchildren to thrive in a great environment. I think the outreach plan shouldn’t be targeted at the PTO’s only. I think you need to include the COA and other groups, like people who rent apartments (not the non-voting population that some people think they are – renters, for the most part, care about the town, too) as well.
5. If you answered yes to the above, how can we attract younger people to run for TM? Robert Putnam (“Bowling Alone”) found that younger generations (like mine, Generation X, and millennials), are much less interested in civic engagement than Baby Boomers and the generation before that (which he calls the “civic generation”). If he is right, we may have trouble replacing older people with younger ones in TM.
I think some people, regardless of age, might not have an issue that’s sparking their interest. If you find the issue and light the match, people will come. And quite frankly, if people don’t have some passion around the issues and the process, they’ll likely be bored to tears since, as you know, the work of Town Meeting isn’t always glamorous.
6. Voter turnout has been been very disappointing recently. In 2011 we managed only 13.0%, despite election day being a beautiful Saturday. Local towns that have already held their 2012 elections are turning out at up to double that rate. Why don’t Billerica residents vote?
I don’t know and it’s a great question. For the first few years I lived in Billerica, I probably voted every other year. I didn’t pay attention to the issues. I didn’t know the candidates though I did notice the signs (the tomato on Rome Capobianco’s signs – brilliant marketing, Fraz – a very memorable nickname, etc.) so it wasn’t until I got involved that I really started paying attention.
I’d love to see the town do more to drive awareness. Candidates put out signs on lawns but the town doesn’t usually put a sandwich board on the common or around town in major intersections announcing the election date. I’m willing to bet we have the signs and simply need to get them out a couple of days in advance. I think a little effort could go a long way.
7. Further, why aren’t they registered in the first place? I calculated about 6,400 unregistered adults in town, or 21% of voting age adults. That was last among region towns. Burlington was second-to-last, with 14% unregistered.
Another great question that I’d love to know the answer to… the Registry of Motor Vehicles makes it easy to register when you renew your driver’s license but that only happens every five years, I think, so without more easy opportunities I’m not sure people will make the effort. I’d love to know if there are any studies that have looked at this issue nationally.
8. What affect will new technology (electronic voting, for example) have on general interest in TM?
Done right, I don’t think it will drive anyone away. I also don’t think it will draw anyone into the process, unless we find it saves significant time and that may attract some folks who were put off by the time commitment back into Town Meeting.
Thanks for the opportunity to answer your questions. And I hope everyone marks their calendar for the election on April 14, 2012. Polls are open from 8 am to 8 pm. – Mike
I had a good time talking about what I‘ll bring to the Town Moderator role with the Eye on Billerica team last Saturday. And the show is headed to BATV starting this Friday on Comcast Channel 22 | Verizon Channel 26.
- Friday, March 23, 2012 12:30 PM
- Wednesday, March 28, 2012 06:00 PM
- Saturday, March 31, 2012 03:30 PM
- Thursday, April 05, 2012 06:00 AM
- Sunday, April 08, 2012 05:00 PM
Thanks to Peter, Jim, Tony, John, Matt, and Bob for putting the show together!
UPDATE: You can watch the show on demand at http://batvinc.org/vod. Go to Government/Political and look for Eye on Billerica 0311: Town Moderator Forum.