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Editorial: Town Meeting gives residents a voice

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Monday, June 04, 2018

For those who think Town Meetings are a relic of the past, think again. From one end of the region to the other, residents attended this quintessential form of democracy this spring and made decisions, significant as well as routine, that will impact their communities for years to come.

Some of these decisions are annual rites of passage, from approving budgets to buying dump trucks and police cruisers to OK’ing Community Preservation Act funds. Others are more controversial, such as sending an override to voters for approval.

Town Meeting also is a place for communities to weigh in on larger social and national issues. That, too, occurred many times this spring on issues ranging from immigration to transgender rights to nuclear disarmament.

Here’s a rundown of some of the major decisions made during Town Meeting season.

Belchertown residents finally followed the lead of town administrator Gary Brougham and began the process of removing the town from membership in the Hampshire Council of Governments, an organization that Brougham says is on a downhill spiral with out-of-control finances. It will take until mid-2019 to officially withdraw, and the jury is still out on whether leaving is a good move, but voters appeared to be convinced by recent reports about the council’s struggles.

Hadley and Hatfield both opted to fill the positions of collector and treasurer by appointments rather than continuing to elect them. That means attracting candidates with more on-the-job experience and professional credentials compared to someone who simply can secure the most votes. It’s a practice recommended by the state Department of Revenue, and voters were wise to sign off on the change.

Hadley Town Meeting members also thwarted two last-ditch petitions by American Legion Post 271 to stop funding for a new senior center or to move the site north of town. Legion officials have contended that it uses for parking the proposed town-owned site where the senior center will be built. However, we believe the Legion is off base with its argument, and voters rightfully spoke loud and clear in rejecting its petitions.

Southampton sent an override request from Town Meeting, where it passed after much debate, to the ballot box, where it too ultimately was approved. That’s saying something in this fiscally conservative community that rarely passes measures to increase property taxes, but Town Meeting members and voters wisely chose services in exchange for a few extra dollars in taxes each year.

Later this month, Granby Town Meeting will once again face a critical decision on its consistently inadequate school funding. Will voters agree to give the schools enough money to plug a significant budget gap or brace for painful cuts? That depends on who shows up to vote at Town Meeting.

Several communities used Town Meeting as a forum to take stands on a variety of issues that are not confined to the boundaries of one community.

Westhampton voters supported by just two votes legislation that would stop public funds from being used for immigration enforcement, after contentious debate from residents on both sides of the issue. Shutesbury took a stand in favor of transgender rights, approving an article that asks state politicians to offer a nonbinary or transgender option whenever a person is required to identify their gender. Other communities passed articles instructing elected officials to push for nuclear disarmament worldwide.

Town Meeting isn’t perfect, and we wish more residents would participate. But there’s no debating that decisions made by those who do show up are important for all who live in those communities.

Annual Town Meetings give residents a voice. So if you’re a complainer about government decisions and live in a community where Town Meeting still thrives, let’s hope you showed up. If not, mark it on your calendar and show up next time.