Then November 14 Happened


To the Editor,

Manchester’s Town Meeting on November 14 was chaotic.  Some have said it exemplified the incompetency of our local government.  Whether that accusation is valid or not, my view is that it was one of the best Town Meetings I’ve attended in 50 years.  Given the chaos we witnessed for over three hours, this opinion seems odd.  Or is it?

Town Meeting has historically followed an established pattern.  The warrant is published listing the articles subject to vote.  The Select Board and Finance Committee agree with each other to recommend, or not to recommend approval of each article.  We vote almost always in concert with the Select Board’s position, and we go home.

It seems so choreographed.  One senior citizen mentioned that she thinks the cake is baked before we show up for Town Meeting.  She asked, “why go?”  Most registered voters don’t.

Two parts of this established pattern stand out to me.  First, why does the Finance Committee almost always concur with the Select Board in its recommendation to approve, or not, an article?  Perhaps it’s because the Select Board appoints a majority of the seven Finance Committee members.  The Town Moderator appoints the rest.  It is a reasonable proposition that the Selectmen choose prospective members whose votes, they expect, will mirror their own.

Second, why do we almost always vote in concert with the Select Board’s recommendations?  Perhaps it’s because we elect town leaders to manage the town, advise us on material matters, and do the many things necessary to keep the town running.  Town officials meet often, spend considerable time studying issues, and do this as unpaid volunteers.  These folks are our neighbors and friends. 

Also, when they come before us at Town Meeting, they usually speak with one mind; that is, the Select Board and Finance Committee agree with each other.  With the voters’ knowledge less than that of the officials, with perceived social costs associated with publicly disagreeing, and with Town Meeting not the venue to discuss in deep detail each issue—indeed, the time given to each participant to speak is very limited—we vote as we’re encouraged to.  We, the voters, submit to a form of groupthink—the proposition that the “… the drive for consensus … suppresses dissent and appraisal of alternatives in cohesive decision-making groups.”   

Then November 14 happened. 

There were 16 articles up for vote.  On two of the articles, which were money articles, the Finance Committee said it would make their recommendation from the floor of Town Meeting.  For the remaining 14, it did not take a position.  This abstention is perplexing, for some of the 14 articles, if passed, would have had significant financial implications because they would influence the number of tax-paying entities.  Putting aside why the Finance Committee did not opine, the Select Board was left without the FinCom’s support. 

It did, however, have the support of the Planning Board.  Indeed, articles 4 through 16 were “Per Petition of the Planning Board.”  These articles, in toto, could have materially changed the town.  Many residents did their homework, and found the articles, in their opinion, to be detrimental to the town.  They let their voices be heard well before Town Meeting which allowed for debate and discussion without the Town Moderator’s limitations. 

Even the Planning Board was not of one mind, for two of its members did not support all of the recommendations.  They stated so publicly.  The facade of unanimity, so common over 50 years of Town Meeting, was beginning to crack.  Perhaps the Planning Board sensed this, because it made a motion to pass over Articles 9 through 16.  The Select Board concurred.  Town Meeting voted in the affirmative, and Articles 9-16 went poof.  Town Meeting was then dissolved.

Prior to the zoning articles, on the right to recall elected officials, the Select Board was left naked; it did not have the support of the Finance Committee or the Planning Board.  It had to argue on its own why town residents should not have the right to recall.  This right is found in the U.S. Constitution (Article II, Section 4) and in the by-laws of other Massachusetts cities and towns.  The Select Board’s logic to not recommend the article was sophomoric, even tortured.  Uncharacteristically, the Select Board lost, albeit with an amendment to the original language.

The apparent push-back by the voters to Articles 9-16, and the rebuke of the Select Board’s recommendation to not support Article 3 were in stark contrast to our elected officials’ and their experts’ support of the articles, and antithetical to the historical precedent of agreeing with town leaders.  And to the credit of our special town, all of this give and take took place with reasoned discourse and civility.

In 50 years of attending most town meetings, I have never witnessed such a rejection of our elected officials’ recommendations.  Voters thinking independently of the Select Board, not being cowered into groupthink, and sticking up to what they felt important to the town are all the reasons why I found November 14 one of the best town meetings I’ve attended.  Whether this independent thinking and acting will continue is a matter of speculation.  But there is now precedent.  Hopefully, the voters of Manchester finally have found their voice.  For at least on November 14, we most certainly did.

William G. Shipman


manchester, select board, planning board