Friday, May 12, 2000
Case for a Lower Quorum
On the second evening of Town Meeting, while waiting nearly one hour for the requisite 150 voters to trickle into Corey Auditorium, retiring town moderator Marshall Simonds took the opportunity to address the issue of the quorum and recommend that it be reduced to 25. While lowering the quorum has been discussed periodically over the years and I've been somewhat ambivalent, I'm now a staunch proponent.
It is unfair that those who have left work early, gulped or skipped dinner and possibly arranged for a babysitter are the same residents forced to sit and wait an hour in hope that a quorum of voters will arrive so the meeting can be called to order. Furthermore, all those early birds will then have the "privilege" of getting home one hour later, losing more time for their families, relaxation, business, etc. Even worse, we've seen meetings postponed after an hour-long wait when a sufficient number of residents never arrived.
After a 1995 Town Meeting had to be postponed for lack of a quorum, the Carlisle 2000 Task Force, a group formed to study and recommend ways to improve town government, put forth a proposal at the 1996 Town Meeting to lower the quorum to 50. After much discussion, the Warrant article failed with 120 voters in favor, 148 opposed. Residents reasoned that they didn't want to "streamline" town government, put the power in the hands of a few, or relieve citizens of the responsibilities associated with a democracy.
This year, after the planning board had spent countless hours revising four bylaws to improve town planning, it appeared that there might not be enough residents there for them to present their carefully crafted proposals. The selectmen had also put in countless hours negotiating a deal to market a lot on Carriage Way which could net the town almost $400,000, but they needed a Town Meeting vote to move forward.
As Simonds pointed out, there is a shortage of voters who seem willing to appear at Town Meeting to conduct the ordinary, yet necessary, business of town government. When there is an issue which stirs passion, such as a building project or land acquisition, voters are there. There was no shortage of voters at Tuesday's meeting when affordable housing on the Conant Land and school funding issues were up for a vote. However, there is routine business that must be conducted by Town Meeting. Is it fair to postpone officials who have done the necessary preparation for a Town Meeting or delay voters who have made the effort to appear on time?
There are probably other issues which impact Town Meeting attendance. With a new town moderator, it seems an appropriate time to reexamine Town Meeting issues: when should they be scheduled, how frequently, when should topics of special interest and routine business be addressed and, most importantly, what should constitute an appropriate quorum.
It seems like forever since I attended my first Carlisle Town Meeting. Actually, it's been 17 years, which means I've only attended half the Town Meetings moderated by Marshall ("Pete") Simonds, who retired last week after 34 years as moderator. Doing anything for 34 consecutive years is mind-boggling. Breathing is the only thing which might qualify me for such a distinction.
Without question, Pete deserved the plaudits he received before, during and after his last hurrah. It's not an easy task, balancing legalities, civilities, equalities and rivalries. As in previous Town Meetings, Pete's last performance was mostly bravura but sometimes deficient. The meeting was run efficiently, with appropriate doses of wit, wisdom and a willingness to bend, but not break, a few rules. Unfortunately, it also displayed Pete's penchant for occasional intimidation, as when he referred to a new Carlisle resident as a "visitor from Watertown." Certainly, this is not the right way to welcome a new neighbor or to encourage others to share their feelings at Town Meeting.
I choose to shine a light on this incident, despite Pete's long history of contributions to our town, because it seemed to illustrate a key point made by Dr. Michael Thompson in his keynote address at the Carlisle School's Education Forum a few weeks ago. Thompson suggested that a necessary ingredient for raising responsible kids is the civil behavior of adults in their families and communities. In the discussions that followed his talk, many Carlisle parents described their reluctance to publicly protest the uncivil behavior of a coach, another parent or a child (not one's own). Most agreed that it's not easy to publicly confront a good coach who's gone off the deep end, or a group of foulmouthed or bullying adolescents in the presence of younger children.
And yet that's what we must do, and do consistently, to remind adults and to teach children that civility is a core value in this community. Our kids certainly won't learn the value of civility from the movies and TV programs they watch, so it is especially important that a moral compass be provided in the real-world venues they inhabit, families, religious communities, classrooms, playing fields and the like.
Do we destroy the concept of competition by reminding our kids that their soccer or baseball opponents are good kids too? Would we be guilty of disloyalty by congratulating the other team's parents and coaches for their good sportsmanship and a well-played match (as we ask our kids to high-five their opponents)? Commending civil behavior is just the other side of protesting uncivil behavior.
Parents, teachers, coaches and other adults are the models kids use to calibrate their own moral compasses. If their parents or other adults don't object when a coach acts obnoxiously, how does a child learn that obnoxious behavior is not the accepted norm? If teachers, school authorities or even school bus drivers condone or tolerate bullying or other forms of aggressive behavior, what's the message our kids are getting?
So Pete, I tip my hat to you for the great job you've done for so many years, but I'm kicking myself for not stepping up to a microphone to protest the darts you occasionally threw.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito