EDITORIAL: Unwritten ‘Rules’ of Town Meeting Government
Many people in town have been waiting quietly for the School Committee and APEX to figure out how to work successfully within our form of government. A direct democratic form of government such as Groton’s has a different set of unwritten rules and suppositions than a representative model.
Here, political power is diffuse, making hardball politics and lobbying useless to the point of being counterproductive. There is no handbook. But here are a few observations on working effectively in the form of direct democracy called ‘Town Meeting.'
• The political is personal, and the personal is political. Character, and reputation - how you conduct yourself publicly - carry as much weight as expertise and knowledge. If you can’t refrain from calling public officials Nazis on the list serve, or if you regularly impugn the values and honesty of elected leaders in public meetings, your cause is lost.
• Being a one-issue partisan works against you. Educating children is very important, but it is not the ONLY issue. To develop political influence you need to be taken seriously. To be taken seriously, you need to show a legitimate concern and understanding for the whole town. You can’t fake it.
• Groton is a good town and we take pride in it. Constantly talking down the town, its leaders and residents will get you nowhere. Fair criticism is welcome, but a constant flow of negativity works against you and your cause.
• ‘Town Meeting’ is a process that goes on year around. Town Meeting is a continuous conversation of public hearings, discussions, controversies and meetings involving many boards and committees and especially the Board of Selectmen. To gain political influence, you need credibility. To gain credibility you need to be conversant with the major political issues of the day. Being a one-issue partisan will pigeon-hole you as self-interested, a frivolous voice in the crowd.
• Politics makes strange bedfellows, especially in a small community. Your political adversary now, will likely be your political ally tomorrow. To achieve success in the future, be careful not to permamnemntly alienate today’s adversaries because they will likely hold the key to tomorrow’s success. You need to play the long game.
• Political humility is an important teacher. Experiencing the lessons of direct democracy over a number of years teaches a useful humility, helping guide your actions. After losing a vote on an issue you consider fundamental, it is not uncommon to realize - eventually - that you were wrong and your political adversaries were right. What you thought was a bad decision, you now see as a good one. Even if a truly bad idea is approved, it usually gets changed and corrected pretty quickly. Direct democracy works if you give it time to work.
• Political feuds are forgotten quickly when behavior changes. Political humility teaches that we need each other to participate in government for the betterment of all. Play by the unwritten rules, and you will be politically redeemed in no time, ready to reenter the fray.