Columnist Elizabeth K. Markovits: Is Town Meeting local democracy at its finest?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

In ancient Athens, democracy meant that every citizen was part of the decision-making body of the city, the ekklesia.

It was a large-scale, directly democratic institution, much like the classic New England town meeting. In both settings, people came together to discuss, reflect and make decisions as a group of peers. The radical democracy of Athens provides spectacular evidence for the power of self-government.

Here in New England, we’ve long prided ourselves on preserving one of the last vestiges of direct democracy — real democracy — in an increasingly professionalized political world. This faith in the intelligence and decision-making of everyday citizens, and the sense of community generated by coming together to take responsibility for a shared life together, is a rare shining light in an era of democratic discontent.

But there are problems with this vision — at least here in Amherst.

In Amherst, we don’t actually have such a radically democratic model in place. We scrapped it in 1938, when the town moved from an open, participatory model to an elected, “representative town meeting.”

Now we have a weird hybrid model that fails to deliver on the democratic promise of the original institution of a truly open, participatory town meeting — while also lacking the crucial mechanisms of accountability that are the hallmarks of true representative institutions.

In my academic field, political science, there are ongoing, vigorous debates about what representation really means, how it works, how to ensure the democratic character of representation, and so on. But even amid all this debate, political scientists generally agree that in order to have representation, there must be some mechanism by which voters can hold their representatives accountable.

Voters must be able to figure out what was decided, and why. And they must be able to hold representatives responsible for those decisions (usually through voting them out of office, which requires open and competitive elections). Without such mechanisms in place, we creep toward oligarchy — a political environment in which a small group of privileged citizens who are able to devote time and resources to governance control government, without being accountable to the rest of the citizenry.

To be sure, some supporters of Town Meeting argue that it was never meant to be representative in this sense. Rather, it’s like a “representative sample” of citizens. Yet Town Meeting fails on this count as well. Research consistently shows that Town Meeting is whiter, wealthier and older than both the general and the voting population of Amherst. In 2015, the average age of voters was 39 but Town Meeting was 59; voters were 21 percent non-white but Town Meeting was only 7 percent non-white; 49% of voters were homeowners but 80 percent of Town Meeting members were.

Town Meeting in no way reflects the tremendous diversity that drew me to Amherst, and it fails to capture the true power of direct democracy — the intelligence of the entire citizenry, known in Athens as the demos.

This might be mitigated if Town Meeting were actually an open forum for discussion, as many supporters often claim. This is simply not the case. Many of us advocating for a change in government for Amherst got involved in this effort after being shut out of conversations.

If Town Meeting members can call the vote with a line of voters waiting to speak at the meeting, then this problem will always exist. And without a way to hold those Town Meeting members who ignore their fellow citizens to account, we have institutionalized a deeply undemocratic form of government — a form it’s time to change.

Amherst’s “representative town meeting” isn’t direct democracy. Nor is it even a decent model of representative democracy. Right now in Amherst, we have the worst of both worlds — a smaller number of demographically unrepresentative representatives making decisions in an electoral system that largely shields them from accountability.

Who do I call when I want to advocate for better gun control at the national level? Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey and Jim McGovern. At the state level? Solomon Goldstein-Rose and Stan Rosenberg. And if they are unresponsive to the citizens’ wishes, we know exactly who to vote out.

But who do I call for a better crosswalk near my child’s school? The answer should not be to reach out to 24 Town Meeting members in my precinct, let alone all 240 in the town.

In March, we’ll vote on a manager-council system. Is it perfect? Of course it isn’t. But it is far more democratic than the system we have in place today.

Elizabeth K. Markovits has lived in Amherst for nine years and is a parent of two children attending Amherst public schools. She is an associate professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley.