Let's reverse town meeting apathy trend

Sunday April 29, 2012


It's the most vital, cherished form of grass-roots democracy in New England - a tradition at least two centuries old, and one sadly ignored by the vast majority of citizens here in the Berkshires.

All 30 towns will hold annual town meetings and elections over the next few weeks. These gatherings determine how the thousands of dollars in property taxes residents and business owners pay each year are spent, and who will be the decision-makers resolving a town's major and minor issues.

Turnout has plummeted in recent years.

Some town meetings are attended by fewer than 10 percent of taxpayers; many elections are decided by fewer than one-third of the voters. Think your voice doesn't matter? This space could be filled with outcomes determined by literally a handful of votes.

Complainers, beware: If you don't participate, keep your gripes to yourself.

This season, some towns face especially challenging meetings. In Lenox, for example, fractious issues - some still unresolved - have divided citizens and cast aspersions on our paid and unpaid neighbors who work in Town Hall and try to do their best for the community. Inevitably, mistakes have been made, but that's no reason to shoot the messenger or the manager.

Town Meeting and the election that follows represent an opportunity for those who are chagrined to express themselves - politely.

On the back of the pamphlet listing the 29 articles to be voted on at Town Meeting this Thursday evening, Lenoxians will find the following, titled "Building Community Together": One of the strengths of a small town is that we know our neighbors and care for each other's welfare. We respond well in times of personal need. How uplifting and productive it would be if we could always bring that same, warm human response to each of the challenges and controversies that we face as a community.

Disagreements will always be a part of public discourse. A certain amount of tension is healthy. It is another source of strength prompting more critical thinking and leading to improvements in processes and better decision- making. Our ongoing evolution with democracy depends on civil give and take. But remembering to remain civil and to not resort to personal attacks are critical ingredients.

Unfortunately, we do not have the best of role models on the national or international level and the rancor around us can all too easily infiltrate our local dialogue. Lenox is better than this. We can disagree without being disagreeable! We should encourage the expression of diverse opinions being stated in a way that respects other points of view. And remember to be a good listener when someone is expressing their viewpoint. It is always helpful to have gathered as much of the facts as you can ahead of time.

Again, you are entitled to your opinions but not your own set of facts.

Moving a community forward requires a shared vision. We need to work together to identify this common vision and then work together to achieve it. We have a strong foundation here in Lenox with enviable assets. Pulling together as a community, working through our disagreements in a civil way and putting into place the processes and actions needed will allow us to prosper. It can also be enjoyable and life-affirming.

The axiom that "it takes a village" means we all need to do our part, working together to resolve our challenges. Participate - it will lead to a stronger Lenox.

The author of this essay - which could apply to any town - is Lenox Town Manager Gregory Federspiel, who told me that he hopes it will be taken in the spirit he intended.

To which I can only add: Amen.

Clarence Fanto is an Eagle staffer.

He can be contacted by email at cfanto@berk shireeagle.com or on Twitter at@BE_cfanto.


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