by H David Cotta
China resident and former state legislator
In just a short couple of days the town of China will be conducting the China town meeting. This meeting is held each year and at times I wonder if the citizens of China fully appreciate the form of government that the town meeting represents.
The town meeting form of government is the most democratic form of governance. Some not familiar with this form of governance and may believe that the town manager is the executive of the town of China and the town is governed by the select board, but neither is true. The governing body in China is the town meeting where the citizens cast a vote to direct the actions of the select board. At the start of the meeting the citizens in attendance elect a moderator who must conduct the meeting according to Roberts Rules of Order. Proposals, which are referred to as Articles, are presented for the people to approve or disapprove. The articles can also be amended.
I guess the best way to describe the town meeting form or governance is the people hold all the power to govern. The select board can only do what the people authorize the board to do (of course, the people can not direct the board to take illegal actions). It is at the town meeting where the people, by their vote, guide the course of their town and the actions of their elected town officials. The town manager is hired by the select board and works for the select board within statutory guidelines the town meeting is the most direct and equal form of governance. This form of governing is only as good as the level of participation by the citizenry, and there in lays the proverbial “fly in the ointment.”
Apathy is a stern heartless master and can only survive by inaction of the good people of our town. We all have our lives to lead and life has a habit of getting in the way of what we planned or intended to do.
Several (30+/-) years ago the level of participation at the town meeting had declined to the point that the people established a quorum which was a percentage of the number of voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election which must be present to open the meeting and conduct business. The quorum for this upcoming meeting is 126 voters which when you think, represents 126 of over 2000 voters who voted in China during 2014.
So what happens when there is minimal turnout at the town meeting? Each vote on the floor of the meeting represents many who did not attend the meeting. The citizens that chose not to attend will have no voice in the process, so the town governance will be by a small minority. Additionally, the result of low voter participation could take a couple of forms.
First, the direction given to the select board (municipal officials) may not be representative of the town as a whole. Second, would be to consolidate power which can be a matter streamlining the conduct of business but at the cost of the checks and balances that we as citizens are afforded. Granting an expanded range of powers to the administrators is not good governance. Some indicators of the “Flying by the seat of your pants” are reflected by comments by the auditor clearly stated in the 2015 report – (China 11-10-15) addressing the lack of internal controls. Further, the select board meetings are not recorded which can and has lead to a discussion of what was stated in a motion during previous meeting. Clarity, transparency and accountability is lost.
In closing I would encourage all citizens of China to attend the town meeting. Please provide your officials the insight and guidance of the citizenry. If you have questions do not hesitate to ask because your select board and others are there to answer questions. I hope I will see you there. Thank you.
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