Our View: Take Responsibility

by The Cape Cod Chronicle

It happens at almost every town meeting. It doesn’t matter when or in what town. At some point, someone stands up and complains that it’s the first time they’ve heard about this-and-such article. The insinuation is that officials are trying to pull a fast one, sneak something past the voters, that they’ve kept information secret for some nefarious purpose.

We get it. We’re skeptical of authority, too. In fact, that’s our job: to dig into things and ensure information and decisions are made public in a complete and transparent fashion. We pore over agenda packets and warrant addenda and make public records requests when necessary. Usually that’s not necessary; in most cases, public officials provide the documents we’re looking for, unless they fall under the law’s exemptions.

In several of last month’s town meetings, residents expressed concerns about not having enough information to make decisions about some articles. A few of these were submitted by petition. It’s important for people to understand that when it comes to petition articles, it is incumbent on the petitioner, not the select board, finance committee or other town entity, to provide the information necessary to decide whether or not to support the measure. Traditionally, Chatham and Orleans place petitions at the end of the warrant, which often means they come up late in the evening, when fewer people are present and those who have stuck it out are ready to adjourn. As it did last month, it can lead to petitions getting postponed or defeated; in the case of the Orleans measure related to conservation commission regulations, it also can mean less debate than some would want. Something has to come last on the warrant, of course, but town officials should perhaps revisit the policy of burying petition articles at the end of warrant, especially when the proposals could have a significant impact.

We were also concerned with the reaction to two articles at the Chatham Town Meeting, both of which were defeated: $2.9 million to complete improvements to the transfer station and $11.4 million for waterfront infrastructure projects. Because both involved borrowing, they needed to get a two-thirds vote, but fell short. Some speakers criticized officials for bringing such high-priced requests to voters without hearings, meetings and workshops to inform the public. And yet — and here’s where we take the side of town officials — neither measure, nor anything else on the warrant, should have been a surprise. The select board spent weeks going over every article, including the two noted above. Both were also the subject of individual discussions by the select board and other town committees. We wrote about them extensively, including details about the cost increases that seemed to rile a number of voters.

The information was also available, spelled out, albeit in stilted government-speak, in the warrant booklet. Would more hearings and informational meetings help? Possibly. Brewster held numerous sessions devoted to a plan for the former Sea Camps properties, which seemed to smooth its passage. But a forum on the airport approach zone map article didn’t seem to help, as misinformation debunked at that session was still spewed at town meeting.

Democracy is not a spectator sport. If additional informational sessions are to be effective, people have to show up. Yes, more transparency and stronger communication efforts by town officials are always welcome, but at some point, voters have to take responsibility and educate themselves.