Thursday, October 25, 2018

Thoughts on Representative Town Meeting, Applicable to the Present State of Groton

Image result for thoughts on government1. A single Assembly is liable to all the vices, follies and frailties of an individual. Subject to fits of humour, starts of passion, flights of enthusiasm, partialities of prejudice, and consequently productive of hasty results and absurd judgments: And all these errors ought to be corrected and defects supplied by some controuling power.
2. A single Assembly is apt to be avaricious, and in time will not scruple to exempt itself from burthens which it will lay, without compunction, on its constituents.
-John Adams, Thoughts on Government, Applicable to the Present State of the American Colonies
In 1776 John Adams was asked for suggestions on the form that the new colonial governments should take, and he responded with a treatise called Thoughts on Government, Applicable to the Present State of the American Colonies, in which he discussed the importance of having a bicameral rather than unicameral legislature.

American government is based on the principle that voters with incomplete information will make choices to elect flawed human beings to represent them, as all humans are. Systems of checks and balances are created throughout the system to counterbalance the natural limitations of humans in roles of leadership.

Image result for thoughts on governmentThe Founding Fathers worked with the idea of the Few and the Many. The Few constitute the influential, the monied, the connected, those who are familiar with the gears and levers of government. The Many constitute the the general population who simply wish to live their lives, raise their families, and pursue happiness.

Our state and federal government were created as they are so that one house (the Senate) might represent the Few, while the other (the House) represented the Many.

In Groton, we see in structure of our town government an absolutely beautiful example of bicameral governance on a local level. In Groton, there is a Town Council of 9 members elected at large, and a Representative Town Meeting (RTM) of 41 members elected among 7 districts.

Members of both bodies volunteer their time for the good of their community, but Town Councilors are expected to spend 15 hours and more every single week for what is ultimately a very thankless job. The RTM, by contrast, spends a few hours per month in meetings, except for during the month of May when they spend considerable time poring over every line of a 250 page budget.

Naturally, the pool of potential Town Councilors, individuals who have the talent to serve and the willingness to invest hundreds of unpaid hours, is quite a bit more limited than the pool of those who might serve on the RTM. The result is a difference in the character of the two bodies.

Town Councilors tend to be people of greater political involvement in the town and its history, which is multiplied once on the Council as they work closely with staff throughout the town. This is both an asset and a hindrance. It is an asset as their familiarity allows them to better understand the inner workings of our town. It is a hindrance as their increasing familiarity may cause them to overlook errors and inferior solutions, much as one ceases to notice a creaky step in their house after many years of living there.

41 regular citizens coming together for the benefit
of their community and their neighbors. There can be
no better representation of true republican democracy than
the New England town meeting.
Covering this blindspot is the relative enthusiasm and inexperience of the RTM members. For any given issue, some of the members are encountering it for the first time, giving them the opportunity to approach it with fresh eyes, possibly asking questions that have not been asked before, while others have decades of experience in government giving them a seasoned outsider perspective.

In the most extreme circumstances, the RTM can come together and even reverse actions of the Town Council or initiate their own actions. These tools are rarely employed, but their existence weighs into every decision that the Town Council makes.

All of the meetings of the Town Council and the RTM are recorded by Groton Municipal Television and uploaded to YouTube. Watch a couple Town Council meetings and contrast them to RTM meetings. Much of the work of the Town Council is done behind the scenes in caucuses and planning meetings. Their meetings are quick, efficient, and orderly, which is good for the conduct of business but often fail to allow the viewer to fully grasp the function of the government.

The RTM, by contrast, contains many members who are effectively members of the general public coming forward to serve their neighbors. They may have little more involvement in government affairs than anyone else living on their street, so the questions that they pose to the Town Manager, the Superintendent of Schools, or any other staff who come before the RTM are the questions of their neighbors. The RTM gives voice to every citizen, both through direct citizen comment and though their representatives.

The RTM is one of the most incredible tools of democratic engagement. The question may be posed as to whether the RTM has been employed to its best potential here in the town of Groton, but it is like any tool. It must be employed by motivated and skilled hands to create a beneficial result.

There can be no doubt that the mere capability of the RTM to veto an ordinance has caused the Town Council to give a second thought to a flawed ordinance.

There can be no doubt that items of the budget have been refined and cut prior to coming to the RTM, knowing that the RTM would reduce it if the Town Council did not.

There can be no doubt that the ability of the RTM to inquire has brought sunlight to many functions of our town.

There can simply be no doubt that the town of Groton, Connecticut is a better governed town because of the powerful direct influence that the RTM allows the common citizen to have on the government process.

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