Open Town Meeting still works. Just ask our friends in Tewksbury.
I’ve been watching the municipal meltdown in Tewksbury with great interest for the last few months, and recently, the taxpayers went to Town Meeting and proved that it can still be a very effective form of government.
I’ve always been of the opinion that all municipalities are pretty much the same. Tewksbury, Dracut, or some little town in Wyoming, they all exist for the same purpose.
They provide services to their residents. Schools, public safety, all that important stuff, and they collect taxes to pay for it. Sometimes, they allow the cost of providing services to outpace the ability to pay, and in an economy like this, it’s usually the government that pays.
It is really difficult to comprehend just how Tewksbury managed to spend itself into this much trouble. A Tewksbury-Dracut comparison reveals that although it has only 33 more residents, Tewksbury has $20 million more than Dracut annually to operate with.
The result of this Tewksbury Town Meeting is evidence that an open Town Meeting can be effective, and that taxpayers don’t have to be elected to know how to hold their town government accountable. It also proved that anyone gets a chance to make their case.
Right or wrong.
Let’s take the example set by now former Tewksbury School Committee member Keith Rauseo. Rauseo didn’t like the town manager’s budget and didn’t think the schools were getting the right percentage of the revenue, and were taking too big a hit.
So along with his own group of school types, he went to Town Meeting and asked his fellow taxpayers to give him a chance to come back with a budget that made more sense. A budget that would give more money to the schools and public safety. He got his chance, and that probably wouldn’t happen with another form of government.
You have to admire the guy. Walking into Town Meeting with your own budget takes guts, but realistically, you’re probably a little nuts. I’m not sure Keith read the tea leaves correctly, because had Town Meeting supported him, the next year would have been hell for the guy.
Town managers are trained to do this kind of thing, and for the most part, they all do a decent job. They don’t look at the short-term impact on one department, their job is to look long term and to keep all of the services available. A manager like David Cressman would understand the impact of every dollar and every cut, and how it plays out over time. A guy from the school board would have a much different view.
If you’re a town employee whose job is on the bubble, who would you rather have doing the budget? With all due respect to Keith Rauseo, school board members shouldn’t be trying to take over the town. Town Meeting figured that out.
So the good news is that Tewksbury residents “get it.”
They know how to take control of Town Meeting, and they support the trained professional running their town. Both are very positive steps in getting out of the fiscal mess they are in.
Unfortunately, unless the price of sweet crude oil changes directions, it will be a while.
This Town Meeting battle in our sister town across the river has left me wondering about a couple of things.
How would an elected Town Meeting have handled this problem? What about an elected council? For all of you who have begun to think the New England open Town Meeting has outlived its usefulness, seems to me that Tewksbury just took away one of your arguments.
Former Dracut Selectman Warren Shaw hosts a radio show Saturdays on WCAP-AM from 6 to 10 a.m.