Crazy ideas for ’09: Smaller is better for Town Meeting

Note: This is the second installment in a series of posts proposing unorthodox (that is “crazy”) ideas that Belmont might consider in 2009 to improve the quality of life in town.

Back to blogging here after a busy holiday season. As I wrote in my last post, I’ve been mulling more crazy ideas that the town could try in 2009 that just might work. And by “work” I mean: save the town money, or help preserve local institutions that we all love, or foster a sense of community, or help improve town services, education or the town’s balance sheet. My list last year generated a lot of discussion, and the Belmont Citizen Herald got into the act this week with their list of Nine things to watch for in 2009. Some of those, like the Underwood Pool, featured in last year’s list.

Back on 12/26, I threw out the first crazy idea that came to mind: a Belmont First Night celebration that would give local businesses a boost, bring people together and, generally, be a lot of fun. As the Globe reported, towns like Needham have been experimenting with them, and have seen a lot of town support. Why should Belmontonians have to go into Downtown Crossing to ring in the New Year? Here’s another crazy idea to consider in 2009…

A smaller town meeting

Look, I’m a town meeting member and I’m touched by the beauty of this great, old New England tradition. The reality, however, is that Town Meeting, as it currently exists in Belmont, is too large and too unwieldy to serve the town as it should. Town Meeting should be much smaller and there should be more opportunities for discussion and engagement by TM members prior to Town Meeting itself. Our most recent town meeting was a good example of that: notification of the meeting went out only a week or so before the meeting itself -certainly no violation of town bylaws, but hardly a lot of time for members to weigh the issues before them: a zoning change for commercial development along Brighton Street and the transfer of funds to cover the town’s obligations as part of a fuel purchasing collective. At the meeting, members certainly came to the mic to ask questions on the items in the warrant, but the dynamics of a large, late night meeting are such that debate and discussion are kept to a necessary minimum. Most members want, first and foremost, to get through the evening’s agenda in an efficient fashion and go home. As an example: I asked a question about how much the town saves, in an average year, purchasing fuel through the collective, the better to inform our decision on the transfer of funds. Nobody from the town had that information and…that was that. Noise was made about setting prices more than once a year, or having a ceiling or basement on price increases in a single year, but in the end, TM gave officials what they want, with no clear commitment to getting changes in the program that will keep us from getting robbed by big swings in fuel costs again in the future. Town Meeting is meant to be the deliberative body for the down, but its rarely that. A smaller, more engaged TM would serve Belmont’s interests better. We can hope that this will be one of the recommendations that will come out of the town’s Government Structure Review Committee, chaired by former Selectman Paul Solomon, but we’ll have to see.