By way of introduction, I am currently one year into my three year term on Northborough's Board of Selectmen. I was approached by Charlene Arsenault, editor of the Northborough Patch, and asked if I would consider some sort of regular online presence. Blogging is not foreign to me. Many years ago I authored and maintained a personal blog. Because of the various commitments I have in my life, I'm not sure how often I'll publish a post. But when I do, I've determined that it will be in the format of a question and answer relative to happenings within the town. Due to my public position within the town, I must necessarily include a disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are solely those of its author and do not necessarily reflect the policy, position or agenda of any person, agent or employee of the Town of Northborough.
Question: Why should I attend Northborough's annual town meeting? (This year being held on Monday, April 23 at 7 p.m. at Algonquin Regional High School.)
Answer: Let's be honest. Would you rather sit through an hours long discussion on budgets, bylaws, capital improvement projects and zoning laws or watch the latest primetime television program? And even if primetime television isn't your preference, surely there must be a book you'd rather read, a wall you'd rather paint or a place you'd rather be than at the annual town meeting. I get it. I really do. Legislative priorities, revolving funds, motions, petitions and reports – that's somebody else's responsibility. You have enough to manage in your life without worrying about compensating balance agreements, whatever that is, and understanding the concept of a fiscal year. Just make sure the tax level stays where it's at, educate the children, protect property from fire and theft and maintain the roads. Who cares about the rest?
Carol Chione does, now.
I don't know Mrs. Chione very well. She's a distant neighbor of mine given that we live on the same street. About four months ago, she and I started exchanging emails because she lives directly across the street from a parcel of land that is about to be developed with three buildings – a ten unit apartment building, and two half business, half residential buildings. I don't know how civically minded Mrs. Chione was prior to the start of 2012. But I'd wager a guess that this development project forced Mrs. Chione to turn off her primetime television show, put down her book or paint brush, and pick up a copy of Northborough's zoning laws. I'd even be willing to wager that Mrs. Chione has now read more of Part 7 of the Town Code than the people who have the responsibility of enforcing it.
But here's the kicker. The laws allowing for the mixed use proposed development across the street from Mrs. Chione were passed at last year's town meeting. I've never asked Mrs. Chione if she was present last year. I'd frankly doubt it. In fact, the statistical odds are heavily in my favor. Northborough has 10,000 registered voters. The average attendance at the annual town meeting is about 150. The town requires a minimum of 100 voters to convene the meeting, which means that one percent of the town is making decisions affecting the other 99.
The unfortunate truths illustrated by the case of Mrs. Chione are these: 1) Citizens are generally loathe to participate in any aspect of town governance until something happens that directly affects them - just ask anyone living on Coolidge Circle; and 2) by the time a citizen informs themselves sufficient to comprehend the impact, it's generally too late to do anything about it.
Mrs. Chione and the dozens of like-minded residents surrounding the new development will probably not be able to prevent the proposed development from moving forward. But as a result of the process, she and many others have now joined the one percent. Who knows? Maybe this year we'll achieve two percent attendance.
Occupy town meeting.