Thursday June 21, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- As long as there's been a town here, there's been a town meeting.

But with only a scant minority of voters actually showing up for these annual gatherings in the last several years, the Select Board may be looking to tweak this small-town New England tradition in hopes of boosting participation.

The idea of shifting from the traditional first Monday of May sprang from a discussion the board had this week about setting the 2013 town meeting and election calendar.

Board members said Great Barrington has one of the lowest turnouts for town meeting in Berkshire County. They also said the town has one of the longest meetings, which may be a contributing factor to the low turnout.

At the annual town meeting held last month, 351, or 8.15 percent, of the town's 4,305 registered voters attended. That's down from 9.29 percent of voters in 2011 and 10.7 percent of voters in 2010.

"I think it's time to look at making a change," said Select woman Alana Chernila. "I don't think this is really working."

Town meeting in Great Barrington regularly runs around four hours and starts at 6 p.m.

Board members discussed a wide range of options to increase participation, but the two issues that seemed to keep arising were the day of the week and the length of the session.

Chernila said Monday is the worst night of the week for families, while Selectman Stephen Bannon suggested having a set time limit and splitting the votes between two days.

Other options discussed included moving the meeting to a weekend, offering food, holding the meeting at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, advertising child care, switching to a representative town meeting system, and holding semi-annual sessions.

Board members said they will invite Ed McCormick, the town moderator, to an upcoming meeting to get his insights on the matter. McCormick didn't immediately return calls for comment for this report.

The one thing that has been sure to increase turnout is controversy, according to town officials. When hotly contested issues such as funding new schools were on the warrant in the past, attendance was more than twice what it's been recently. During the board's discussion Tuesday, Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon noted that it's possible voters next year could be looking at funding requests for upgrades to the high school. Dillon joked that if that's the case, there won't be any problem getting voters in the seats in 2013.

A number of towns hold their town meeting the first Monday in May, but it's unclear how long Great Barrington has adhered to that schedule. The first town meeting here in 1761 was held on Wednesday in July.

To reach Trevor Jones:
tjones@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6214.
On Twitter: @BE_TrevorJones.