Town Meeting: A Time Honored Tradition in Need of a Tune Up?

Oct 16, 2019

Fall Town meeting season has begun, and residents across the region will fulfill their civic duty by taking up a wide range of issues. But multi-hour, sometimes multi-day, meetings can make it difficult for some to attend, and some towns have struggled to reach quorum.  Mashpee resident Craig Orsi and Yarmouth resident Stefanie Coxe recently wrote an Op-Ed in the Cape Cod Times on just this issue. WCAI Morning Edition Host Kathryn Eident talked with Coxe to hear more about their ideas on how to modernize this centuries-old form of democracy.  

Eident Stefanie, thanks so much for chatting with us.

Coxe Happy to.

Eident What are some of the suggestions that you came up with for how we might make town meeting more accessible for people across the spectrum?

Coxe I think it's important to note that we both think that town meeting is a fantastic tool for civic engagement and we both value it very much. And the issue is simply that it needs a tune up. So, one of the things that we think is important is that it's not just a matter of marketing the meeting itself. You need to make sure that the town meeting experience will also be positive.

Eident What were some of your suggestions?

Coxe Some of the suggestions that we came up with include, you know, as simple as it sounds, utilizing social media. Towns have understandably, in some cases, shied away from even having a Facebook page or creating a Facebook event for town meeting that can pop up on voters' calendars. But that's the equivalent of ignoring the newspaper or, you know, mail or the town crier 100 or 200 years ago. It's a communication channel and it's really important that we make sure that the information is out there.

Similarly, some towns hold information sessions a week or so prior to town meeting, and we think that's a great example. But, it should also be live-streamed on Facebook Live. Again, meeting people where they're at, as well as conveying the issues that are being voted on in sort of plain English and in terms of what the impact is going to be in people's real world lives.

Eident What about the meeting itself? What kind of suggestions did you have to make that a little bit better for folks from across the community?

Coxe One of the barriers for having a broad cross-section of voters participating in town meeting is that not everyone has three, four or five hours, sometimes multiple nights, to be able to devote to their civic duty. So, as much as town meeting can be increased in efficiency by eliminating things like hand voting in lieu of electronic voting, as well as making sure that child care is available for the entire length of the meeting, these types of tweaks are going to help make sure that once you advertise it, people have a good experience and want to continue coming back. And in most cases, it's not that people don't want to participate, it's that there are real barriers for them.

Eident Have you heard any feedback from, say, town officials?

Coxe We've both heard from several local officials who have said that they really like the ideas in it. So, I'm hopeful that this will generate a conversation.

Eident Do you see any towns on the Cape already making changes?

Coxe Absolutely. Part of the impetus for this was that we have seen numerous towns trying various tactics, but it's not often that they're all pulled together with numerous tactics. It's part of a broader strategy. There are certainly towns that are taking this issue very seriously. Chatham 365 Task Force presented some recommendations to the Board of Selectmen. The town of Eastham is one of a couple of towns that has brought in electronic voting. So, I think towns do take this very seriously. And we just had some ideas about how to sort of bring them all together in a comprehensive strategy.

Eident Stefanie Coxe, co-writer of a recent op ed in the Cape Cod Times, thanks so much for chatting with us this morning.

Coxe Happy to.