Op-Ed: What Is a Town Meeting and Why Are We Having Two of Them?

We’re all adjusting to lots of changes brought on by the pandemic. One of these is the town’s inability to hold our annual town meeting. If you did not know, the town meeting is the legislative body of Easton, as it is in many New England towns. In addition to the annual town meeting, there are occasionally special town meetings which are set up to consider various items like ordinance changes or special appropriations recommended by the Board of Finance. 

Usually, in the annual town meeting, we gather to learn about and discuss the proposed annual budget and then send it on to a machine vote. But last year, because of the COVID prohibition against large gatherings, the governor mandated that our Board of Finance, itself,  approve the annual town budget, without a town meeting or vote. This year, we are able to hold an annual town meeting, so that people  can attend and we will stream it live, followed by a machine vote so that everyone can vote on the budget. In addition, because there are several issues facing us today that Eastonites need to learn about and vote on, we also are holding a special town meeting.

When running for First Selectman I was told by many, many people that the town meeting is broken. I heard a lot of frustration because the meetings  frequently degenerate into raucous affairs, with the vote going to whichever side of an issue recruits enough people to make it to the meeting. This is not a truly democratic process.

The solution I offer is to let all the people in town vote on all major questions by machine vote rather than at the town meeting itself. This is the purest form of democracy as envisioned in the original conception of the town meeting where the whole town gets together and votes.  Under the format I have put in place, every member of the town can weigh in on these major decisions by voting in the referendum, after learning about them (in-person or via video capture) and discussing them at a town meeting. 

There are some potentially contentious items on the agenda, for the upcoming special  town meeting, which are under time and financial constraints and that require timely action and decisions before finalizing the town budget. That is why we must hold the special  town meeting and subsequent referendum now.

Two of these issues — joining the Westport  Weston Health District and building the multi-use path along Sport Hill Road — have had lengthy and detailed exposure for public education. Two informational meetings were held on the health district and the presentation was posted on the website for almost a year. There was a formal public hearing on March 4, and we have had more than six months of a trial collaboration. You will be asked to allow me to negotiate for the town to enter into the health district. In the case of the pathway, there are defined plans and costs which were vetted and modified by town input over a three-day charette review, and the  results have been posted for more than a year.  This is an advisory question to allow the Board of Finance to better understand how the town feels.  I have and will continue to explain the reasoning for my positions on both these proposals.

One change is that  we will lose the ability to modify the resolutions presented. Note that this follows the process for the meetings on the budget,  where  no modifications are  made at the annual town meeting and approval of the budget, in the last decade at least has  always been referred to a machine vote. (In fact, the Connecticut general statutes governing the town meeting allow petitioners or the selectmen to remove an item from the town meeting agenda altogether and refer it directly to a vote.) Thankfully, we can manage people attending the  town meetings  this year, and each and every voter in this town will be able to vote on these important issues. Also, residents have had significant opportunities to comment on these issues with the new greater public comment periods at Board of selectmen meetings and the several brown bag open sessions I have held with our citizens. 

 If any voter is disturbed by the process I have described, you will have the ability to vote no on any question.  Your voices will be heard with your vote. The result will be the people’s choice.

I continue to strive for openness and transparency in leading the town’s business. It is my hope that the people of Easton will decide the important questions that will be put to in front of them in the March 23, special town meeting and on the March  30 referendum. More about the annual meeting to follow. 

David Bindelglass

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