Rama Schneider: Increased participation vs. increased decision-making

This commentary is by Rama Schneider of Williamstown, “tireless advocate for good things.”

Williamstown is going to be voting this March on the future of townwide economic decision-making. The question will be whether we take the town's money issues away from the town meeting floor vote and move those issues to the Australian ballot. I support this change.

The primary difference between the two forms of voting is the floor vote is an in-person vote and the Australian ballots allow for all-day paper balloting. The prior, I'd argue, is about increased decision-making, and the latter is about increased decision participation.

The increased decision-making comes about because any article introduced on the floor of town meeting can be altered, and with money issues this can mean increasing and decreasing spending and thus local tax rates. The Australian balloting removes that ability to make change in favor of increasing the number of folks who can decide on a given ballot question.

My own direct experience in all this comes from active participation in Williamstown's school and municipal spending since moving to town in 1992. I've been part of a group that successfully, but temporarily, managed to get a notable reduction in the school district budget. As a school board member, I've been active in the development of the district's budgets.

I helped advocate a change from the floor vote to Australian balloting for the one-time Williamstown school district when I joined that board in 2009, and the town passed that question the following year. I had become personally convinced that the greater need was the participation as opposed to the decision-making itself.

To illustrate my contemporary view on this matter: Imagine a line going from left to right, starting at 0% public decision-making and going to 100%. At 0% I see the purchase of toilet paper and pencils and such; and at the 100% end is the final proposed budget. At the left end is town meeting with floor votes and all that comes with that; and on the right hand end is daylong balloting and all that follows.

I'm hoping we can find an alternative town meeting where politics, food, music, friends and the recognized of known and unknown names can mix and match. These meetings, these physically local get-togethers, are, I believe, a vital part of our own human existence. Physical town meeting is a simple recognition that we truly are in this together and united.

I'll be voting to make the change despite finding it unfortunate that that is the necessary decision. Days and lives have changed, however, and I believe we need to update our democratic institutions and processes to reflect that change.


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