Orange works to reverse low town meeting attendance

ORANGE — Officials and residents who regularly attend town meetings have been scratching their heads about how to get more people there.

While many small towns have moved away from open town meetings, Orange holds fast to the New England tradition that gives residents power to make key decisions, such as approving the annual town budget.

But the system relies on voter attendance, which has dropped steadily in recent decades.

Long-time residents remember when officials struggled to find seats to accommodate everyone who showed up. Finance Committee Chairwoman Linda Smith recalled when she watched the crowded proceedings with her family from the Town Hall balcony.

More recently, Karl Bittenbender said he was one of seven residents at a special town meeting making decisions that involved millions of dollars. A quorum of 75 voters is now required.

Selectmen approved holding town meetings at Mahar Regional School as the building is more accessible and has better acoustics. But Bittenbender said these changes will do little to address the underlying issue that “People don’t come to town meeting because they are afraid.” According to Bittenbender, many people find the tone of voice and body language used by some speakers in town meetings to be intimidating. “They don’t want to have other people ridicule them when they speak up. They see it happen to others.”

Bittenbender has been working with a peacemaking group that practices “the fine art of listening” as a way to build a culture of respect in public meetings. According to Bittenbender, the group uses a “restorative circle process” he was trained to facilitate through his volunteer work with the court system’s Reinventing Justice program.

The approach is based on Native American tradition in which people take turns speaking. Interruptions are discouraged.

Selectmen’s Chairwoman Kathy Reinig is one of about 80 residents and official participating in the group since it started last year. Reinig said that focusing on what the speaker says instead of “how we want to respond ... allows us to truly listen to people with different opinions.”

“Town meetings are the one place … we sit together with other people who disagree with us,” said Bittenbender. “It’s a very heterogeneous experience … in which community really comes alive.”

He added, that representing all views is more important given critical challenges the town faces. “The budget is so bad right now … We have some tough decisions about who is going to get funded for what. We can’t fund everything everyone wants.”

Bittenbender said the group also brainstormed ways to promote town meetings through social and other media to attract a broad representation of different ages and perspectives.

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