Town Meetings — Agreeing to Participate in Local Decision Making

Growing up in the southern parts of the United States, as well as in Spain and Mexico, I was shocked when I moved to New England in 2002 to find a form of local decision making that I did not know existed.  I was used to living in places where few knew who their elected officials were, and even fewer were involved in the process of local governance.  Then I went to my first town meeting in Wilton, New Hampshire.  Almost everyone I knew in town was there for the annual meeting.  Everyone had the booklet with all of the budget proposals that had been prepared by the three town selectmen, and specific project proposals put forth by different citizens.[1]  Most people were informed, and everyone was given the opportunity to speak up, asking whatever questions they wanted.  And, they did.  I was amazed that a large percentage of the town’s citizens showed up, cared, engaged in the process, and in the end it was the people who voted on each point, not the selectmen.

Town Meeting is both a moment-in-time and a thing.  As a moment-in-time, it is when town’s eligible voters gather to appropriate money to run the town, and to vote on salaries for the elected officials and on the town’s local statutes or by-laws.  As a thing, Town Meeting is the legislative body for towns.[2]  In some places, this innovation is relatively old.  The town meeting is the predominant form of local government practiced in the US region of New England since the 1600s and still practiced in 169 towns in Connecticut, 432 in Maine, 297 in Massachusetts, 1,785 in Minnesota, 221 towns in New Hampshire, 31 in Rhode Island, and 237 in Vermont.  This totals over 3,000 town meetings in just seven states.[3]

Part of a much larger movement of citizen engagement and participatory budgeting, the core idea is that an increase in the frequency, diversity, and level at which community residents engage leads to an increase in the quality and impact of the decisions made by local governments, community organizations, and public agencies.[4]  Compare this with the more common expert-driven practice of city management, where few citizens engage in the process, and few feel ownership for the community’s outcomes.

The traditional model, on the left-hand-side of the figure above, sees scarcity when looking through lens #1 of “how much,” and sees a professional administration for the group when looking through lens #2 of “who decides.”  The professionals look the “what criteria” of lens #3 and see that they manage the commons for the whole community, requiring only sufficient revenues, often in the form of taxes, from the citizens to pay for the basic infrastructure the professionals control.  The main connection to the self, other, nature, and spirit, as seen through lens #4 is the periodic responsibility to elect the professional staff.  This lack of relationship leads to citizens disconnected from the opaque processes of governing basic infrastructure, who are resentful for taxes paid, and apathetic at elections.

The innovation, as reflected in the right-hand-side of the figure above, brings in verb-level processes to engage the creativity and resources of the citizens being served.  Through lens #1, citizens involved in town meeting and other forms of participatory budgeting and community engagement see sufficiency to abundance, knowing their neighbors and elected officials, expecting to find creativity and engagement.  By design of the town meeting process, through lens #2 of who decides, the elected officials propose budget items to the citizens at the stated town meeting for their approval.  Through lens #3 of the criteria used, citizens voice their opinions for their own selves, for their neighbors, for the group, for the sources of creativity, and for the process of innovation, invoking the criteria of the five primary relationships.  Through lens #4 of the interaction of the primary relationships, one sees the design of the iterative, annual process by which citizens get together to decide for their own future, and live together through the consequences of their own decisions, promoting an informal process of reflection, learning, and self-accountability.  As people begin to look for more democratic forms of transparent local governance, they are beginning to experiment with this innovation.


[1] You can see the minutes of this town meeting, as an example.

[2] The Massachusetts Secretary of State provides a citizen’s guide to town meeting.

[3] The town meeting is the predominant form of local government practiced in the US region of New England since the 1600s and still practiced in 169 towns in Connecticut, 432 in Maine, 297 in Massachusetts, 1,785 in Minnesota, 221 towns in New Hampshire, 31 in Rhode Island, and 237 in Vermont (see the National Association of Towns and Townships).  For a description of town meeting in the USA and Switzerland, from the late 1890s, see (Sullivan, 1892).

[4] For resources on community engagement, click here.  For a partial global map of participatory budgeting processes, see (http://tiny.cc/pbmapping).

Advertisements

One thought on “Town Meetings — Agreeing to Participate in Local Decision Making

  1. Pingback: What Do We Agree to in Our Money System — Complementary Currencies « Jim Ritchie-Dunham

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s