Letter to the Editor: Is Town Meeting Truly Democratic?

~ Submitted by Curt Dudley-Marling

Bedford Town meetings typically begin with the boast that the town meeting is a quintessentially democratic process. Monday night’s meeting illustrates the fallacy of this claim. To begin with, important decisions were made by less than 7% of eligible Bedford voters. The extension of the Minuteman Bikeway, for example, was blocked by fewer than 260 people (approx. 2 1/2% of eligible voters).

Some will argue that people make their own decisions to attend or not and, if they don’t attend, they forfeit their right to complain about decisions made at the Town Meeting. But even a turnout of less than 7% of Bedford voters nearly overwhelmed the facilities. There is no facility in or near Bedford that could accommodate a meaningful turnout.

Last night’s meeting also demonstrated another reality: it’s easier to mobilize opposition to an issue than support. We have no idea if the range of views expressed at the Town Meeting are representative of the town as a whole (I suspect they are not).

Arguably, the Town Meeting format lets voters hear what their fellow citizens think about an issue but there is no room for substantive debate (reading statements in front of a microphone is not debate).

And it’s not clear how much some at Monday’s town meeting really cared to hear from their fellow citizens. Debate on the Bikeway extension was ended while more than 30 people were standing in line waiting for their turns to comment on the bikeway article.

I believe it is time to give up the conceit that the Town Meeting is some pure form of democracy. It is not.

It is past time to transfer the authority vested in the Town Meeting to the Bedford Select Board who we have elected to make the best decisions on our behalf. It isn’t a perfect democratic forum but it is far more democratic than Town Meetings which too easily devolves into a tyranny of the minority.


Keep our journalism strong! Support The Citizen Journalism Fund today. Contact The Bedford Citizen: editor@thebedfordcitizen.org or 781-325-8606

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Matthew Agen
Matthew Agen
4 months ago

How about this – hold a Town forum where people can discuss the articles before the town and ask questions of the select board, finance committee, etc. But no votes are held. Instead, let everyone vote in-person or by mail-in ballot one week later on all the articles. That way everyone in town has an easy way to vote but all the things that people like about Town meeting still takes place.

The current format requires people to
1) Spend 8 hours listening to people repeat the same points over and over when their minds are already made up about their votes.
2) Stay late into the night on multiple evenings past many people’s bedtimes.
3) Requires them to get a babysitter or other help if they are a primary caregiver for someone in their household.
4) Requires being able to fit in the room.
5) Can I repeat my point about everyone repeating the same points over and over? :P

Jerry Skurla
Jerry Skurla
4 months ago

There is a valid and existing middle ground here – the Representative Town Meeting – that maintains the importance of bottoms-up democratic participation while eliminating the antiquated “must physically show up to vote” approach of an open town meeting. Remember the recent “Adapt to Covid” presidential election of 2020 used expanded mail-in, drop box, and drive-in voting methods to increase voter inclusion and participation. Surely this is an example that Bedford can learn from.

Patty Carluccio
Patty Carluccio
4 months ago

I have to disagree with you. I have found Town Meeting to be one of the best ways for checks and balances on town government to take place. We The People have input. We get to publicly debate each issue.
Town Committee work is important too. But the final public review of Bedford’s business matters, to me, is the closest we can come to self governance.

Yes, many people don’t want to take the time to participate in Town Meeting. They are welcome, but it’s their choice. Those that do go have a say. Our forefathers set up these checks and balances (yes, sometimes messy) for a reason after much debate. I feel we are fortunate that we can participate if we choose. The lively discussions are very interesting to me and I truly appreciate that there are people who take the time to read and prepare for the meeting.

In the end I have seen articles voted down and then redone with a much better result for Bedford. I think we will see that with some of the articles that did not pass last night.

Ted T. Martin
Ted T. Martin
3 months ago

They “approve” by/with their non-attendance..else they would be there?

Mark Cieplinski
Mark Cieplinski
4 months ago

While I agree with the author’s statement that Town Meeting is not a true representation of the democratic process, I would respectfully debate the position that decisions should be solely left to the Select Board. I’d welcome the opportunity to vote on the articles at Town Meeting but the multi-night process is excessive and agree that reading of statements only prolongs the process and rarely introduces new information to influence your predisposed voting preference. Is there an option to select key items of public interest whether they relate to impact of majority of citizens or cost to the town budget and vote on them with a paper ballot? I feel that the concept of town meeting while quaint is outdated and not structured to provide the best outcome for the current day population of Bedford.

Heather R Thacore
Heather R Thacore
4 months ago

I agree, that the actual interest of the town is NOT represented by these town meetings for all of the reasons in the article. With so many of us having kids, working and running around having the luxury of time to sit at a town meeting for hours and hours to cast a vote on one particular item of interest is just not possible, no matter how much we’d like to. I agree that some form of re-structure to this format should be considered. Is there a way for highly contested/debated articles to be decided by a larger portion of the town population? Maybe after the meeting if an article could be determined as needing a larger % of population weigh in, folks could go to town hall and cast a vote at their leisure with a print out of the debated points there for reference? There must be a better way to do this. Many of us are surprised and confused by the outcome of the Town Meeting.

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