Local democracy at work - or not

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Town Meeting Day and its associated voting took place here in Manchester on March 4, 6 and 7. I earned myself a civic halo by attending the Town meeting on Saturday, the MEMS School Board meeting on Monday, and then by voting on Tuesday.

Were they tedious? You bet they were. But democracy in action is hard work, and to be truly effective democracy has to be supported by people taking the time and making the effort to pay attention and attend. The hard work put in by the Select Board and the Town Hall staff in producing the content and statistics in the Town Report, Parts A and B, and then organizing the meetings and the subsequent voting arrangements, needs to be recognized and duly appreciated.

But the main point of this comment is to take my fellow residents in Manchester to task for not supporting the democratic opportunity. Manchester has 4,391 residents, of whom 3,768 are registered voters — the numbers vary a little as people come and go. How many of these attended the Town Floor Meeting on March 4? 149. Yes, that is not a typo — 149. Over 3,600 registered voters found other things to do. Of course, if even 1,000 of those absent had turned up the Town Officers would probably have had mutual heart attacks, but 149 is less than 4 percent of the town's registered voters.

Having taken action on the first 13 items of the agenda, items 14 to 18 were items for discussion before Australian ballot voting scheduled for Tuesday, March 7. These items included the proposal to appropriate $221,900 for support of the Manchester Community Library. By the time that discussion took place and the executive director of the library was called to make her pitch there were fewer than 40 people in the room. The Library is a strong town asset and several spoke in favor, including me, but surely the expenditure of almost a quarter of a million dollars of taxpayers money is worth more than an audience of 40 people.

On Monday evening, March 6 I attended the school district Meeting. The attendance was even worse. We were being presented with a FY18 budget of $11,087,531 for MEMS — and the attendance was 71 people. $11,087,531 for a student roll of 386 (including 42 children of non-residents) works out at a per student capita cost of some $28,724 per student — and only 71 residents turned up to take part in the discussion. Only a few of those were parents with children at MEMS. How is it that more parents don't show up to take an interest in the hard work of their own school board? Also up for discussion was the $16,700 tuition charge per student for 2017-18 by Burr and Burton Academy for Manchester's students, and the school district merger under the terms of Act 46 to create the new Taconic and Green Regional School District. The latter had received extensive discussion in earlier meetings held in the participating towns but this was Manchester's last opportunity before the actual vote.

On Tuesday March 7 voting took place. While recognizing that some voters had made their minds up without any need to attend the prior meetings, the total number who turned up at Town Hall to vote was 926. In the event a small number of those did not complete their ballot papers, but 926 out of 3,768 registered voters works out at just under 25 percent. Of the 926, 42 voters chose to leave the MEMS school budget blank.

What kind of democracy is this when more than three-quarters of town residents apparently take no interest in the health and welfare of the town? Sadder still, these figures are not unusual. So what might be done to encourage more interest in the work of Manchester Town Hall? It would be fanciful to imagine that there could be a major improvement, but at least a doubling of the numbers would be worthwhile.

Perhaps one way would be for the Select Board chairman, Mr. Ivan Beattie, to hold a town meeting a couple of times a year. Selectboard meetings at Town Hall are open to the public, but each has a formal agenda and format that do not lend themselves to a conversational meeting with a gathering of residents. With so many storefronts empty in town it would be good to hear his vision for the future, and for him to hear the views of town residents in an informal setting. Such town meetings should take place at Manchester Community Library. A few days ago U.S. Rep. Peter Welch held a meeting of this kind in the Northshire Bookstore and it was very well attended.

Another way would be for a regular article from the Selectboard, say quarterly, in the Manchester Journal, and/or an appearance on GNAT-TV. Similarly, articles from the heads and principals of MEMS and BBA would keep residents — more than just parents — better informed. Perhaps others could come up with other ideas.

For democracy to work properly, people have to be involved. For some, this means running for elected positions, but for the large majority of us it means taking an interest, attending public meetings from time to time and expressing our views.

Derek Boothby is a resident of Manchester.

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