As I continue to ponder Representative Town Meeting system used by Brattleboro, I find myself coming to the same conclusion: it either needs to be reformed, or it needs to go.
The biggest problem is representation. While voters can elect “representatives” to participate in Representative Town Meeting, there is almost no representation going on. Unlike selectboard candidates, reps rarely state to voters what they stand for. Reps rarely hold district meetings to discuss issues. Voting records of reps aren’t tallied or made public. And almost all the information reps take to Representative Town Meeting is given to them by town officials, not constituents.
Voters, despite picking names on district ballots, often don’t know who represents them, how to reach them, or how those reps have voted. Writing in names of people better known to a voter has been eliminated, unless that person is deemed “official” through registering as a candidate. Sometimes reps get slots through the caucus process, under the radar of most district voters.
There is almost no accountability in this system.
Even the most outgoing and concerned rep making every effort will can run into trouble at RTM when issues that were not warned come up for decision-making. Do my constituents want me to vote in favor of this amendment to raise the amount of money going to Human Services? There is no way to know.
One solution is to eliminate the middleman, so to speak, and let voters participate in regular Town Meetings. Each person would represent their own point of view. To do this, a town-wide ballot issue would need to be approved to return to regular Town Meeting. After that, voters could participate or not, freely as they choose. Their decisions would be their own. There would be no reps and the Town Clerk wouldn’t have to keep track of who was a RTM member any longer.
Another solution would be to fix the problem of representation. Not only accountability, but access and responsibilities.
The idea of “districts” is a problem. For effective local representation to occur, a voter should know their local rep. They should know where they live, how to contact them, and know that they will see them in the neighborhood. There need to be ample opportunities for discussion and feedback.
Districts are large, and reps for my neighborhood may live blocks away and never come down my street. As a voter, having a district “team” to rely on is more difficult than having a single person to reach out to on an issue.
When first presented, RTM was designed so that districts would be politically active. Reps would pay attention to town issues throughout the year and hold district meetings to discuss with voters. Voting took place in districts, not a single location. There was more interaction expected.
Life was a bit simpler, perhaps, and there was enough time to do it that way. Now, it doesn’t work. Corners have been cut. For the most part, reps don’t participate in town government for most of the year. They get signatures for petitions in January, attend “cliff note” informational sessions just prior to meeting, and participate on Representative Town Meeting day. The only regular district meetings are short caucuses prior to the information sessions.
Having neighborhood representation might fix this. It would be easier for reps to keep an eye on those they represent and vice versa. It would be easier for voters to let their reps know what they think if things were neighborhood-based.
A voter being able to select a single representative rather than a slate of up to 15 would force a more personal connection between voter and rep. Rather than choose district reps, voters would choose a neighborhood rep. Ideally, this would be the one person everyone on the street knows and trusts to represent them, and someone who likes representing needs of neighbors. Candidates would have an incentive to make their case to their neighbors.
With this change, the number of reps at RTM would go up, which would be more representative of town. Reps would have a better idea of what to do, knowing that they represented the concerns of their neighborhood first and foremost. Voters would better know their rep and have more opportunities to be in contact with their rep throughout the year.
Brattleboro could institute some sort of “neighborhood day” in March prior to RTM. Reps currently go to info sessions to get information from officials. Neighborhood day would be similar but to get information from voters in the reps’ neighborhood. Reps would then know both the official positions, and how their neighborhood feels about it.
Another useful change would be to tally and publish the votes of each rep on each issue after RTM. It would make it easier for voters to see what happened, and hold their reps accountable. There might be more turnover and turnout if voters were more aware of who raised their taxes or cut their programs.
Would this solve the popularity contest aspect of selecting reps? Not entirely, but it would inject additional accountability and awareness, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Other towns that use the RTM system sometimes structure things so that the reps prepare and present the budget at the meeting. They get the Town requests, then reps consider them, not Selectboard members. That could clear up confusion at the Selectboard level, as recently seen at a couple of meetings where human services funding directions were unclear. It would force more reps to become more active throughout the year, and would free up time for the Selectboard to work on other issues.
As it stands, RTM doesn’t work. It’s up to voters if it should be improved or eliminated.
Representative Town Meeting in Brattleboro – Part 1: Its Origins and Adoption: