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  1. #1
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    Default Town Meeting Blues

    At last night's session of Town Meeting (Night 2), I attempted unsuccessfully (some might say naively) to consolidate the school department's capital budget requests into one motion, to try to infuse some organization into what seemed like a disorganized mess of a warrant article. There were 31 capital requests under Article 6, with five separate motions, and debate endured for well over 4 hours and two nights, pinballing from one line item to another without any rhyme or reason. In the meantime, parents at town meeting with babysitters on the clock at home are anxiously waiting to vote on the school capital budget items. A vote on Article 6 finally happened after 10PM last night, closing out the 6th of 38 articles.

    Someone approached me after I made my motion, lamenting that if we move all the school budget votes up front, all the parents will then head home and not participate in the rest of town meeting's business. I agree that this would be unfortunate. But if we continue to have 5 or 6-night town meetings, can we really expect working parents to attend every single session, incurring babysitting expenses each night? The obvious answer is reforming the format of town meeting itself. Shouldn't we be accommodating the few hardy souls (3-5% of the electorate) that actually come out to town meeting by providing incentives for them to continue to participate, rather than discouraging them from ever coming back?

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    Dan, thanks for this post. I think it's an important topic.

    I've been attending Town Meeting for nearly twenty years now, and Monday's night debate over the capital budget represented a low point for me. I don't believe it has ever taken nearly two complete sessions to get through the budget, and the capital budget portion of it was particularly painful. I believe it was so difficult to sit through because the process had no order. It felt as though it would go on forever. Motions were made on line items in seemingly random order, and the moderator did not discourage this, in fact offering that any line item was fair game, even items in the operating budget which had already been reviewed and voted on in the prior evening.

    While it was understood that nothing in the budget was closed until the gavel was struck (hmmm, whatever did happen to the gavel? I rather liked it) at the end of the article, I think it would have been helpful to provided structure and order to the process to have planned to review the budget in sequential order (e.g., "Line 1: Document Management", pause, no motion, "Line 2: Conservation Land", etc.) It would have given the audience a better understanding of where we were, and provided a needed sense that we were actually making progress.

    I have heard comments that the process is broken - that we should move to a mayor or Australian ballot or Representative Town Meeting - anything that moves us away from what is commonly seen as a dysfunctional process. I admit that I like this old tradition, and I would like to fix rather than discard it.

    We need to make improvements though, because we cannot continue to spend thousands of valuable person hours (life is short, everyone -are those meetings really the way we want to spend so many hours of it?) making so little change to what's presented before us. There were nine line items which members sought to cut or eliminate. So at the end of nearly five hours of debate, we cut 1.3% of our capital budget and 0% of our operating budget.

    There has to be a better way. I think many people thought Electronic Voting would be the panacea. It is not. While it has undeniably made voting counting faster, it has also acted as an enabler for people to move for anything with a lot less thought to its impact on Town Meeting. One can certainly argue that's a good thing, but I'm not sure it is. I think that if people could focus on what's important (yes, yes, I know - it's ALL important...) we could improve efficiency of the process tremendously.

    What can we do? I know this has been looked at ad nauseum, but why not try again? Throw out ideas. Maybe something new will work.

    My thoughts:

    (1) as a friend posted on my Facebook page, require proposed amendments to submitted to the moderator in writing at the start of the session (some fluidity would be allowed as there could be amendments on amendments) - and some could reasonably come as a result of the discussion, but perhaps these could become the exception rather than the rule. Maybe in some cases, advance discussion between petitioner and amendment seeker could even result in advance compromises or withdrawals of the amendment altogether.

    (2) limits on question asking -- I know, how undemocratic. Perhaps questions could be asked through the moderator (i.e., submitted in writing) which might limit grandstanding. Perhaps they could be required in advance and answered offline if not determined to be pertinent to the debate

    (3) how about using our electronic voting (and whoever gave me this idea, please forgive me - I don't recall who it was) to leave a window open and let voters indicate when they are ready to vote -- when some threshold is surpassed the moderator automatically calls a vote to terminate debate. Why keep debating when there are few undecided voters left?

    Your thoughts here --
    Last edited by Kim Reichelt; 04-09-2014 at 09:38 AM. Reason: fix typo

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kim Reichelt View Post
    (3) how about using our electronic voting (and whoever gave me this idea, please forgive me - I don't recall who it was) to leave a window open and let voters indicate when they are ready to vote -- when some threshold is surpassed the moderator automatically calls a vote to terminate debate. Why keep debating when there are few undecided voters left?

    Your thoughts here --
    I like this idea. I can think of several possible thresholds.

    1. When a percentage of the total number of registered handsets is reached: 2/3? 3/4? 9/10?

    2. When some margin over a decision is reached. On a motion requiring a majority vote, that might be 60% of registered handsets recording a yes or 60% recording a no. On a motion requiring a 2/3 vote, that might be 75% of registered handsets recording a yes or 40% recording a no.

    The Moderator wouldn't necessarily have to automatically call a vote to terminate debate, he/she might just make an announcement that the vote threshold has been reached. He/she might say whether it's a "type 1" threshold or a "type 2" threshold, or he/she might simply say that a threshold of any type has been reached.

    It would then be up to a TM participant to actually move the question.

    Might this work?

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    Another option would be to continually display the # of voters who have indicated they are ready.

    This reminds me: at one point, the Moderator noted that he could vote if he wanted, or could even not vote, but add his own to the tally presented to him. I do not think he should be able to do this. If he's going to vote, he should press a button like all other voters. Otherwise, the system is recording a tally and he might read a different tally, which I think would be problematic. Would they then go back and make sure he hadn't already voted? I think that's just awkward.

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    I don't see the idea that Kim presented as being a "rush to vote." First, as-is today, anyone can move the question at any time (I think). Second, there could be a 20 minute window (or however long is needed to have the main proponent and main opponent speak) before the Moderator would announce that a threshold had been met.

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    I agree that Dennis allowing things to be taken out of sequence in the capital budget caused a lot of confusion. I think this approach should be avoided in the future.

    A point that Bonnie Gossels had made during her campaign was that the warrant process is too condensed. As a result, many articles make it to Town Meeting floor that really weren't ready yet. Some of these, so much so, that the petitioner makes a motion to pass over it. Others proceed anyway, perhaps with fingers crossed, but once subjected to the scrutiny of TM, questions come up that can't be answered satisfactorily or conflicting/contradictory information emerges. In these cases, sometimes they forge ahead anyway, and the room votes for articles that are not thoroughly vetted, or they get voted against when all the holes emerge and people feel it isn't ready for prime time. In either case, it is a tremendous waste of people's time, which could be avoided with an extended and more comprehensive process of preparing the warrant.

    The other night, the ambiguity of whether the cost of windows was for design only or included installation should never have happened. It is embarrassing to have a resident have to point out that what FinCom said was incorrect. If more time went into the preparation of the warrant, these things could be avoided.

    I don't like the idea of rushing to the vote without sufficient discussion. Even the most stubborn of voters with minds already made up, can be changed on TM floor. One very stark example of this is the sex offender Article that Joe Nolan introduced a few years ago. It had all the right elements and emotional impact of an absolute shoe-in. There seemed to be overwhelming support in the room at the time because it just had all that feel-good, warm and fuzzy stuff going for it that makes people not even consider voting against it. How could you? These are our kids! But then one very brave woman went up to the microphone and spoke against it. I was aghast, as I think many others were, as well. However, as she spoke, she made a very good argument in pointing out that creating these zones that registered sex offenders could not live in would mean that they could and would then live in other areas that weren't similarly zoned - and who among us, would want to live in those areas? She made the case that this article would not be fair to the offenders, nor to many others in town, and it would not really solve the problem. Amazingly, what only minutes earlier had seemed like a sure thing, actually lost when the vote was taken. So, I don't think it would be wise to cut debate short just because some people have to get home to relieve the babysitter (that's a whole different problem that also needs a solution). Time is required to hear all sides.
    John Flaherty

    Any views expressed are NOT mine alone.
    Wayland Transparency - Facts Without Spin
    http://www.waylandtransparency.com/

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    Quote Originally Posted by John Flaherty View Post
    The other night, the ambiguity of whether the cost of windows was for design only or included installation should never have happened. It is embarrassing to have a resident have to point out that what FinCom said was incorrect. If more time went into the preparation of the warrant, these things could be avoided.
    You are right that not every article shows up at Town Meeting "ready for prime time" -- but most often these are petitioner's articles, and there are mandated schedules that guide these processes - the barrier to entry is low (10 signatures for Town Meeting) and the time available is not great. More effort at educating petitioners and helping them with the process is always helpful. I do think we've made progress in this regard, but I guess there's more to do. In the case of the two articles passed over last night, they took about 3 minutes to dispose of.

    As for the FinCom article, certainly there was unintentional ambiguity generated by an unfortunately worded description - perhaps an additional thorough review of each article by outside readers would be helpful. I think FinCom intended to be clear and not mislead with that article - the mistake was understandable, but also quite unfortunate. I'm not sure that more time in the process would have necessarily fixed that error. Also, I think sometimes audience members prefer to wait until Town Meeting floor to raise questions that they could have raised sooner, so in those instances (and I'm not suggesting this was one of them), a longer process also would not have helped.

    Quote Originally Posted by John Flaherty View Post
    I don't like the idea of rushing to the vote without sufficient discussion. Even the most stubborn of voters with minds already made up, can be changed on TM floor. One very stark example of this is the sex offender Article that Joe Nolan introduced a few years ago. It had all the right elements and emotional impact of an absolute shoe-in. There seemed to be overwhelming support in the room at the time because it just had all that feel-good, warm and fuzzy stuff going for it that makes people not even consider voting against it. How could you? These are our kids! But then one very brave woman went up to the microphone and spoke against it. I was aghast, as I think many others were, as well. However, as she spoke, she made a very good argument in pointing out that creating these zones that registered sex offenders could not live in would mean that they could and would then live in other areas that weren't similarly zoned - and who among us, would want to live in those areas? She made the case that this article would not be fair to the offenders, nor to many others in town, and it would not really solve the problem. Amazingly, what only minutes earlier had seemed like a sure thing, actually lost when the vote was taken. So, I don't think it would be wise to cut debate short just because some people have to get home to relieve the babysitter (that's a whole different problem that also needs a solution). Time is required to hear all sides.
    I remember those comments (by a young man named Doug Anderson) quite clearly, and it was a turning point, which happened early in the debate. I agree that occasionally there are those "wow" moments, but it is rare. While we don't want to stifle these, there's no reason we can't use electronic aids to help us decide when to stop debating (not decide for us). First, both pro and con sides should always have the ability to make opening arguments - this is where we are most likely to get tide-turning arguments. I don't think anybody has ever voted to terminate debate before there were proponents and opponents able to make some arguments from the pro and con mics after opening arguments. I'm merely talking about the ability to turn 60 minutes of debate into 30, rather than 60 into 5 or 10.

    We spent 41 minutes last night on Article 17 (Funds to Improve the Transfer Station Access Road Across Conservation Land). It failed 102 in favor, 196 opposed when it required 2/3 majority to pass.

    We also spent 52 minutes last night on Article 23 (CPA funding for First Parish Church), which passed 161-55 (while only needing a simple majority).

    So that's over an hour and a half on two articles that were probably completely foregone conclusions from the get-go. I'm not saying that none of the debate was valuable (and I did appreciate much of the discussion on Article 23), but I'm fairly certain that 93 minutes was not the right amount of time to spend on these two articles.

    If you have other thoughts on getting to the will of the room faster, I'd appreciate them!

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    Default Bring back the Australian Ballot?

    I just re-read my thoughts on this post: Should we change Town Meeting to an Australian-Ballot and would like to say how surprised I am how much my opinion about Town Meeting has changed in 4 years. I still certainly see the value of the debate, but where I was skeptical of the Australian Ballot, I have come to more fully appreciate its merit. I recall being ambivalent about the article back then, and I don't remember how I ultimately voted on it. From the tone of my remarks, it sounds like I probably voted against, but I also remember meeting with Mark Greenlaw about this, and know that with the improvements he made it in, he did shift my opinion. Mark, we should talk again!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dan Hill View Post
    But if we continue to have 5 or 6-night town meetings, can we really expect working parents to attend every single session, incurring babysitting expenses each night?
    The premise of your question is not accurate. Over the last 5 years, there has been no Town Meeting with 6 sessions, and only one with 5 sessions. The 2012-04 Town Meeting's 5th session was the result of its 4th session being prematurely terminated by the unfortunate death of a participant.

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    Quote Originally Posted by DHBernstein View Post
    The premise of your question is not accurate. Over the last 5 years, there has been no Town Meeting with 6 sessions, and only one with 5 sessions. The 2012-04 Town Meeting's 5th session was the result of its 4th session being prematurely terminated by the unfortunate death of a participant.
    That said, that fourth night had already gone so long that before the participant died, I had already moved to adjourn. So we may well have finished that fourth night, but that session was already very long, and there was a lot of Town Meeting left. We may have had to adjourn due to lack of quorum as the hours passed by.

    Those five nights adjourned at the following times:
    • 4/9 11:03pm
    • 4/10 11:25pm
    • 4/11 10:39pm
    • 4/12 10:34pm - this was the evening of the death
    • 4/23 10:02pm
    Since the fifth night took 2 hours and 32 minutes, one might reasonably assume the fourth evening would have gone on until close to 1am had it completed that evening.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kim Reichelt View Post
    That said, that fourth night had already gone so long that before the participant died, I had already moved to adjourn.
    The motion to adjourn was defeated 55-181, and a subsequent motion to "extend until complete" passed. The body was clearly committed to completing Town Meeting that evening.

    Quote Originally Posted by Kim Reichelt View Post
    So we may well have finished that fourth night, but that session was already very long, and there was a lot of Town Meeting left. We may have had to adjourn due to lack of quorum as the hours passed by.
    Had every voter who opposed the "motion to adjourn" left the meeting, a quorum would still have been present by a comfortable margin.

    Quote Originally Posted by Kim Reichelt View Post
    Those five nights adjourned at the following times:
    • 4/9 11:03pm
    • 4/10 11:25pm
    • 4/11 10:39pm
    • 4/12 10:34pm - this was the evening of the death
    • 4/23 10:02pm
    Since the fifth night took 2 hours and 32 minutes, one might reasonably assume the fourth evening would have gone on until close to 1am had it completed that evening.
    I disagree. The fifth session was held 11 days later, causing considerable loss of rhythm. It was held in the Middle School Auditorium, which prevented our usual use of "pro" and "con" microphones. With only four Articles remaining, there was no time constraint. Electronic voting was not available, resulting in both a count of hands and a standing count. For these reasons, the fourth session could have dealt with those four Articles in significantly less time.

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    Quote Originally Posted by DHBernstein View Post
    The fifth session was held 11 days later, causing considerable loss of rhythm. It was held in the Middle School Auditorium, which prevented our usual use of "pro" and "con" microphones. With only four Articles remaining, there was no time constraint. Electronic voting was not available, resulting in both a count of hands and a standing count. For these reasons, the fourth session could have dealt with those four Articles in significantly less time.
    There was one counted vote, and that count was 32-175. Counting that many votes simply does not take that much time. All the other votes were uncounted. (Details of the Town Meeting are online here.)

    Attendance for the night was 343, considerably higher than we had at the end of Night 4 (better for democracy). Further, articles considered after 11pm are simply not going to get the attention they deserve. If people just want to get it over with and go home, we're not doing justice to the items under consideration.


    Quote Originally Posted by DHBernstein View Post
    The number of sessions that working parents attend and the babysitting expenses incurred are a function of actual time, not perceived time. In recent history, actual time has only exceeded 4 sessions in the one unusual circumstance described earlier in this thread.
    Most babysitters are high school students with curfews. It is unreasonable to expect them to babysit to unconstrained hours on school nights. While payment may be by the hour, availability is another factor. It would be completely unreasonable to expect sitters to stay until midnight or later.

    It is also unreasonable to expect people who have to commute to work (often quite early) the next day to stay until limited hours either. Having Town decisions made at those hours essentially asks them to be made only by that subset of the community that is available then, an even more unrepresentative subset than those who attend Town Meeting at all.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kim Reichelt View Post
    There was one counted vote, and that count was 32-175. Counting that many votes simply does not take that much time. All the other votes were uncounted. (Details of the Town Meeting are online here.)

    Attendance for the night was 343, considerably higher than we had at the end of Night 4 (better for democracy). Further, articles considered after 11pm are simply not going to get the attention they deserve. If people just want to get it over with and go home, we're not doing justice to the items under consideration.




    Most babysitters are high school students with curfews. It is unreasonable to expect them to babysit to unconstrained hours on school nights. While payment may be by the hour, availability is another factor. It would be completely unreasonable to expect sitters to stay until midnight or later.

    It is also unreasonable to expect people who have to commute to work (often quite early) the next day to stay until limited hours either. Having Town decisions made at those hours essentially asks them to be made only by that subset of the community that is available then, an even more unrepresentative subset than those who attend Town Meeting at all.
    I wholeheartedly agree that Town Meetings can and should be more efficient. That doesn't make "if we continue to have 5 or 6-night town meetings" an accurate premise.

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    The premise may not technically be accurate, but it's certainly on point. Dan might be forgiven for thinking on night 2 this year that 5 or 6 was going to be the outcome. The problem, I think is that Wayland makes 3 or 4 nights of Town Meeting routinely feel like 5 or 6.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dan Hill View Post
    But if we continue to have 5 or 6-night town meetings, can we really expect working parents to attend every single session, incurring babysitting expenses each night?
    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    The premise may not technically be accurate, but it's certainly on point. Dan might be forgiven for thinking on night 2 this year that 5 or 6 was going to be the outcome. The problem, I think is that Wayland makes 3 or 4 nights of Town Meeting routinely feel like 5 or 6.
    The number of sessions that working parents attend and the babysitting expenses incurred are a function of actual time, not perceived time. In recent history, actual time has only exceeded 4 sessions in the one unusual circumstance described earlier in this thread.

    That said, better Article preparation and vetting could significantly reduce both elapsed and perceived time. For example, 7 of the 38 Articles considered in the recently completed Annual Town Meeting were effectively retracted by their originators -- consuming 36 minutes of elapsed time, 5% of the total.

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