CHATHAM – There's usually a pretty good turnout for the annual town meeting; better, in fact, than most local towns.
“Yarmouth has 20,000 voters and has trouble getting 100 people” for town meeting, said Chatham Moderator William Litchfield. “Chatham has about 5,500 voters and we get 500 at the drop of the hat.”
But when it comes to the town's annual legislative session, where budgets are set and major policy decisions made, “the more the better,” he said.
During the recent forums sponsored by the Chatham 365 task force, encouraging attendance at town meeting – which begins Monday, May 13 – came up often as a way for people to make their voices heard.
“At the end of the day, that's where the decisions are made,” observed Selectman and Chatham 365 task force member Shareen Davis.
It was obvious at the forums that people of all ages are eager to be involved, said resident Crystal Macara. She decided to take advantage of social media to reach as many as possible and started a “Chatham Town Meeting Pledge” Facebook page, which asks residents to pledge to attend the annual session.
“I think Chatham is at sort of a crossroads,” said Macara, who grew up in Provincetown and has lived in Chatham “on and off” for about 15 years. “We can remain a town of the past or progress forward.” Town meeting, a New England institution dating back to the Pilgrims, is unique in that it is a “ballot box with a soap box,” she said, where participants not only vote on articles but also have the opportunity to state opinions and ask questions.
Macara said she thought a pledge would be a meaningful way to encourage people to attend town meeting and remind them of its importance.
“I think it encourages people to make a commitment rather than have a thought in the back of their mind that they might attend,” she said.
One of the board of selectmen's goals is for the town to use social media more to engage residents, said Davis.
“A lot of people we're trying to engage in the Chatham 365 public forums, this is how they're communicating with each other now. It's obviously the way people are thinking now,” she said. The Chatham 365 task force established a Facebook page and used it to promote the forums, but for the town to up its social media game is “going to take resources,” Davis said, something she hopes the board will be exploring in the near future.
It can be difficult for some people to attend town meeting. For the past few years, and again this year, free childcare is being offered to give parents a chance to attend the meeting. At the recent forums, suggestions were made for ways to improve attendance, including holding an all-day session on Saturday or moving the meeting to February or March, when residents, especially those who work in seasonal industries, are less busy. In the past, Chatham has done both; the month was changed from February to May in the early 1970s, when the start of the fiscal year was shifted from Jan. 1 to July 1, Litchfield recalled. The timing of town meeting is currently fixed in the town's general bylaws as the second Monday of May, and would require a town meeting vote to change.
“There's no perfect time of day or no perfect day of the week,” Litchfield said. It can be a challenge for working people to attend, Davis said, “especially landscapers and fishing people” who go to work early and work long hours. “I've been there.”
But Chatham's town meeting attendance is, if not stellar, “comparatively stellar” in relation to many other communities, he said. According to the town clerk's office, over the past decade, attendance at the first night of the annual town meeting has averaged 533 voters. Second nights and special town meetings tend to have lower numbers, depending on the topic. Two of three best-attended town meetings since 1990 were special town meetings: 1,203 residents attended that Dec. 6, 2004 special town meeting—the highest number in the past 30 years—which included the school regionalization vote; the next highest attendance was at the May 10, 2004 annual town meeting, when 1,167 voters addressed conversion of the Main Street School to a community center. The third highest was a followup on the community center vote on Dec. 6, 2004, when 1,024 residents attended.
Macara recalled having a “really positive experience” attending a “mock” town meeting as a student in Provincetown. She attended Chatham's town meeting for the first time last year even though it “sounded intimidating,” deciding, with a friend, that if they were going to have a stake in the town, they needed to be involved. She went in with no real preparation and still found the experience “interesting and invigorating” and vowed to be better prepared this year.
She said she'd like to see the “Town Meeting Pledge” drive increase attendance by 20 percent. She urged people to find creative ways to attend, such as swapping childcare with friends in other towns or bartering for babysitting. “Find a way to make it happen if it's possible,” she said, because the stakes can be high. Davis noted that there are several articles on this year's warrant that are of special interest to both young people and seniors, including allowing accessory dwelling units in single-family homes, increased funding for childcare vouchers and a vote on a new senior center.
While “having everybody there is welcome,” Litchfield said attendance at town meeting is in a way “self selecting,” often involving those interested in specific articles as well as a small core of people who attend regularly. But in what some say is the purest form of democracy, “Those who show up make the rules,” he said.
“I'm delighted there's a push to get people out,” he added.
This year's annual town meeting warrant is available online at the town's website, and printed copies should be in voters' mailboxes this week or next. To take the “Town Meeting Pledge,” visit www.facebook.com/Chatham-Town-Meeting-Pledge-384680015708621/.