Town Government and the Power of the Citizen Voice

Pamela Posey–Wellesley Townsman COMMENTARY February 25, 2016

Why we should vote NO on March 15

I’m writing with the privileged perspective of a Wellesley resident who learned firsthand how our town government functions at its best, how it protects the power and voice of its citizens. The big outcomes in our town, the ones we feel proudest of, are the result of many voices, vision and energy that percolates from all directions and from people coming together. And our current government fosters this collaborative climate. Let’s not throw it away.

The building of Wellesley’s green high school, opened in 2012, is one of the community achievements we can be proudest of in recent years. The building itself is not only an award-winning, high performance design and model green school but also the product of community consensus. Current and future engaged citizens need to know how this thoughtful process and advocacy is best protected by a No vote on March 15.

I reflect back on the high school project and how passionately we threw ourselves into it, how it represented so many people. A large office could be wallpapered with the copious notes we took at School Building Committee meetings, green charrettes, the position papers we wrote, the research on green school productivity, national and MSBA policy and much more. When we came before Citizen Speak, sat at the table with other constituencies to lobby for our vision that the new high school be green and worthy of state and national attention, the building much more than just a school, we felt part of – and invited to – the shaping of something big and strategic for the town.

But at times advocating for Wellesley’s first green school took courage and strength in numbers to keep hammering at our vision, to not be intimidated, and above all to stay on task as an informed constituency seeing the bigger picture. The most exciting moment came in 2008 when the School Building Committee voted to finalize what it would take to spring Town Meeting for approval. Unexpectedly, I heard the committee vote to approve additional green features to signal strength of the town’s commitment to sustainability. As I heard the vote taken and credit given to our group’s advocacy, I realized that this is what can happen when engaged, informed and passionate citizen advocacy is welcome at the table of town government. The green features and MA CHPS-certified, LEED Silver equivalent status of the new high school became a source of community pride.

But what if there had been a Town Manager at the helm then? Would he/she have welcomed our voices or focused only on the cost that green features would add to the project? We don’t want to tie the hands or muffle the voices of future citizen volunteers. We want the next generation of Wellesley residents to advocate for things we can’t even imagine, to feel heard. Our citizen advocacy flourished because our town’s governing structure encourages an open, collaborative spirit on what is both strategic and important to all. If we bring in a new Town Manager form of government, will citizen advocates thrive in the same way or be discouraged by more centralized authority? What will be the effect of a Town Manager not held to open meeting law? Will fewer people be at the table? Will outcomes to important matters be discussed, maybe even predetermined, behind closed doors?

Our town is not overdependent on volunteers – they make the wheels of thoughtful government turn. And far from being the time to lament that citizen volunteers and advocates are disappearing, let’s make this town wide debate a rallying cry for citizen voices to strengthen and unite. Please join me in Voting NO on Question 1 on March 15, protecting what works best in Wellesley.