The oldest Wellesley tradition: Annual Town Meeting

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on March 16, 2015.

In eleven days, Wellesley’s 135th Annual Town Meeting will begin. To some — specifically, many town officials and the staff who work with them — that means a lot of last-minute preparations and meetings in order to make sure that everything is ready to go.

But to other Wellesley residents, Annual Town Meeting means absolutely nothing, quite simply because they have no idea what it is. No joke. There are thousands of citizens of the town — registered voters, mind you — who haven’t a clue about how their own municipality is governed. (Of course, if you’re reading this article in the Townsman, there’s a strong likelihood you aren’t one of them.)

Simply put, an Annual Town Meeting is the yearly gathering of a town’s voters in order to decide democratically what decisions a town makes, primarily regarding how its money should be appropriated and the establishment of and modifications to local statutes known as bylaws. (And when it sees fit, a town may hold a Special Town Meeting in order to address non-ordinary business, such as the acquisition of land or the construction of a municipal building.)

Some may view this practice as antiquated and inefficient. After all, Town Meetings were used way back in the earliest days of colonial New England. Why, given how much society has changed over the years, should we govern ourselves in the same manner in which our predecessors did nearly four hundred years ago?

There are considerable benefits, however, to this form of local government as opposed to, say, a town council. As proud New Englander (and 30th U.S. President) Calvin Coolidge once wrote: “When the people of a state who are qualified voters can meet together on a common footing in assemblies of moderate size and there, after due deliberation, choose their own magistrates, impose their own taxes and appropriate their own money, they have provided themselves with the firmest foundation of government and the best guarantees of liberty…By placing both the power and responsibility solely in their hands, the town meeting demonstrates to the people that this is their country and their government.”

It’s therefore understandable that the citizens of Wellesley — and of most towns in Massachusetts for that matter — have refused to give up this age-old tradition. That doesn’t mean, however, that modern Town Meetings are the same as they were centuries ago. In fact, there are two key distinctions. The first, more obvious difference is that the participants of Town Meetings today include more than just adult white males. But that change didn’t come about through any actions of the town; it’s entirely because of the 15th and 19th Amendments, which prohibited denying citizens the right to vote based on race and gender.

The other notable distinction is that, since 1937, Wellesley’s Town Meetings have been representational, in that only 240 elected Town Meeting Members are eligible to vote on the various issues that come before the body. Contrast that with how Town Meeting used to operate when all registered voters could exercise their right to vote.

Why Wellesley adopted this representational form of Town Meeting isn’t all that complicated. First and foremost, there simply wasn’t any room in Wellesley that could fit everyone who wanted to attend and participate in Town Meeting. From 1885 until the completion of the Gamaliel Bradford Senior High School on Rice Street in 1938, the largest Town-owned assembly room in Wellesley was the Great Hall within Town Hall. (Including the balcony, its seating capacity was 650.) This wasn’t an issue, however, up through the first decade of the 20th Century. The number of registered voters who showed up rarely, if ever, exceeded that threshold.

But as Wellesley’s population started to rise significantly during the late-1910s, and then once women were granted the right to vote in 1920, Town Meeting found itself too large for Town Hall. The ramifications of this were far worse than late attendees being unable to find a seat at Town Meeting. Indeed, as other towns had experienced firsthand, it became possible for a large group of citizens who favored one side of a contentious issue to arrive at Town Meeting early and fill up the assembly hall, thereby preventing their opponents from even entering and thus guaranteeing the outcome of the vote.

Wellesley officials did what they could to prevent this situation from occurring here, most notably by relocating Town Meeting to Alumnae Hall on the campus of Wellesley College starting in 1925. But even that assembly room — with only 1600 seats — wasn’t large enough.

A second (but equally important) reason why Wellesley scrapped its non-representational Town Meeting format was that the average voter just wasn’t all that informed about the issues. Make no mistake, this had nothing to do with the intellect of Wellesley’s residents. Instead, it largely reflected the changing priorities of the populace as the town cemented its status as a suburban community in the 1920s. Town affairs were out. Work, family, and relaxation were in.

But it wasn’t solely this commitment towards one’s job and personal life that created political apathy. The town’s government had just become too darn confusing for most residents to understand, with its complex web of interconnected departments and committees as well as an increasingly daunting budget.

The earliest explorations into whether the town should adopt a representational form of Town Meeting occurred in 1921. Significant debate regarding this issue, however, would not begin until the early 1930s. And even then — despite the obvious need for significant modifications to the structure of Town Meeting — the townspeople would not support the switch. The first proposal to do so was defeated in a town-wide vote in 1933 by a margin of 2 to 1.

Two years later, the townspeople got what they deserved when overcrowding at the 1935 Annual Town Meeting forced hundreds of attendees to sit in the aisles or stand in the back of Alumnae Hall. The result was such chaos that few people could hear the motions and discussions. Combine that with the fact that so many voters were uninformed of the issues and it’s no wonder that “[t]he result was a waste of time in a maze of inaccuracies, misunderstandings, and parliamentary tangles, during which it seemed probable for a time that the town was going to instruct its officers to violate the [Massachusetts] General Laws.”

Fortunately, the voters learned from their mistake; the following year, they approved the adoption of the representational form of Town Meeting.

Eight decades later, not that much has changed regarding how our Town Meeting operates. It would be remiss, however, not to mention one noticeable difference. Not with Town Meeting itself, but rather with the electoral process for Town Meeting Members. In the years following the establishment of a representational Town Meeting, the number of candidates in each Town Election always far exceeded the number of open seats. Contrast that with more recent elections, including the one that took place on March 3rd where only 101 candidates ran for 83 open seats. (In some precincts, there were no contested seats.)

Does this mean that we need to modify our local government once again? Maybe…maybe not. But isn’t active participation one of the key requirements for any successful democracy? If so, then perhaps more people should take a break from “life” and consider getting involved in what is Wellesley’s oldest tradition: Annual Town Meeting.