GROTON -- Members of the newly formed Town Meeting Review Study Committee wasted little time getting down to business when they held their first meeting on Jan. 30.
Charged by selectmen with reviewing the viability of Town Meeting, the committee is expected to examine the institution's legal framework, cost to the taxpayer, times meetings are held and any other subject it deems proper and to make recommendations for improvements.
Among the members are attorney Robert Collins, School Committee member Berta Erickson, Scott Harker, Greg Fishbone and Alison Eyedenberg.
Accompanied at their initial meeting by Town Clerk Michael Bouchard and Town Moderator Jason Kauppi, committee members organized, choosing Collins as chairman and Fishbone as vice chairman.
After reviewing the charge given them by selectmen, committee members discussed some problems with Town Meeting, including the one uppermost in people's minds, that of increasing attendance or even retaining attendance.
"We want to have as many people as possible to have confidence in the Town Meeting process," said Fishbone, addressing a concern raised at the Jan. 19 special Town Meeting by resident Rule Loving, who lamented the fact that a relative handful of voters could decide on important issues affecting all of Groton.
Loving brought the issue up at special Town Meeting when he tried to amend a measure dealing with the expenditure of $7,734,000 on a new fire station.
Addressing the subject of increased attendance, Loving suggested to committee members that the most important article, such as the fire station measure, should not be placed at the top of the warrant but farther down so that people interested primarily in a single issue would not leave the meeting right after the one they were interested in had been voted upon.
Kauppi noted that at Town Meetings in other communities, the order that articles were considered depended on when they were picked out of a hat. That way, residents did not know when the article they were interested in would come up.
"At special Town Meeting, I noticed a block of citizens walk out after their issue was done," said committee member Scott Harker, who participated in the meeting via speakerphone. "To see that happen was very distressing, very disturbing."
Another point regarding attendance raised by Collins was how to make Town Meeting more expeditious in order to hold people's attention and keep them from leaving early.
"It can be boring," admitted Collins of the way Town Meeting is conducted. "Many in the audience often just sit there (not taking part). I remember that years ago, our meetings used to be more rowdy. So I think things can be done to make Town Meetings more interesting."
As a way of speeding things up, Collins suggested that perhaps a series of public hearings could be held on the measures to be considered before Town Meeting convened so that residents were already informed and not so much time needed to be spent by them at the microphones asking questions.
"I think part of the problem is who goes to Town Meeting and who doesn't," said Eyedenberg, concerned that parents of young children such as herself could not attend even if they wanted to.
Saying that as a result, she felt disenfranchised, Eyedenberg wondered if there was not something that could be done to accommodate residents whose busy schedules conflicted with the time of Town Meeting.
Agreeing that all aspects of the issue discussed had validity and should be explored, Collins suggested that members form subcommittees among themselves tasked with studying and gathering information about different items that needed exploring, including the use of technology and finding out what other communities are doing differently than Groton.
The results could be reported back to the committee as a whole for broader discussion along with members' ideas for questions that could be posed in a survey to be sent to residents with the annual town warrant.
Collins also suggested that whatever questions the group came up with for the survey be run past the town's legal counsel to make sure they fell within the purview of the committee.
With their homework in hand, members voted to schedule their next meeting for Feb. 27.