Opinion: At Town Meeting, emotion can trump logic and reason

5/18/2017 | G. Michael Dobbs

Category: May

It has a very long time since I attended a Town Meeting of any sort.

Spending my high school and college years in Granby I attended several when I came of voting age and clearly remember one moment.

My girlfriend’s father stood up and spoke during a debate of sorts about allotting money to buy several new police cars. He suggested the cops instead ride motorcycles with sidecars as a cost saving measure.

Now, he wasn’t being sarcastic. He was sincere and I don’t believe he saw the reaction from a police officer sitting behind him who rose out of his chair in rage and had to be restrained.

That incident taught me a valuable lesson: keep your mouth shut at Town Meeting.

Of course, that is not the point of Town Meeting. It is a place for advocacy and discussion and is the purest form of a representative democracy we have. You’re supposed to talk if you have a salient point and treated with respect by your neighbors.

Hopefully there won’t be a flaming bag of dog poo on your front steps afterwards.

Now over my 17-year run at Reminder Publications, I’ve successfully avoided the institution of the Town Meeting by covering communities with other forms of government. I will hasten to say that city councils are no less frustrating to view than a Town Meeting and remember there are more of them.

Having covering two of them last week I learned a few things about the nature of the beast.

You have to have a good moderator. Robert Howarth of Hampden and Rebecca Townsend of Longmeadow are the two I witnessed. Both held courteous but firm command of their respective meetings. Townsend gets an additional gold star for having to manage eight hours of proceedings and she did so without a stun gun, a megaphone and a sidearm.

They are as serious as a heart attack. People are there to determine the focus and direction of the community. Months worth of work culminates at a Town Meeting and the town’s governmental functions are guided through the votes of the citizenry.

Therefore, if you are not in attendance, you don’t have the right to complain. And if you speak you ought to know what you’re talking about.

Numbers should rule, but emotions can overtake them. In Longmeadow, many people expressed their opinions about the decrepit Department of Public Works building. The structure needs to be replaced, but several residents didn’t think relocation was necessary, much less a new building.

They expressed disbelief in what was presented. Flood plain? No big deal? Can’t we fix the sagging roof on a building constructed in 1931? Can’t we outsource and privatize all of the functions of the DPW?

In the end the majority of the voters did they only logical thing: approve a first step toward a replacement.

In Hampden, emotions took over the discussion about a non-biding advisory vote to pull the middle school out of the regional school district. I had little idea there was as much deep-set hostility and mistrust between the towns of Hampden and Wilbraham.

In this case, numbers – state aid, revenues from property taxes, number of students, condition of the middle school and what it needs – were outstripped by generations-old feelings.

Where Hampden will go next will be very interesting.

What else did I learn? If I cover an eight-hour meeting – although spread over two nights – Town Meeting again, I’m bringing a cushion for those terrible bleacher seats, a snack and my flask.

Share this: