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Contacting Your Town Meeting Member: Four Suggestions


Special Election Sign in Brookline Special Election Sign in Brookline



Today is Election Day across much of the country, but not in Brookline, Massachusetts, where our next election isn't until December 8 – the primary for the special election to fill the vacant senate seat. So while our friends in Boston and Newton choose a mayor today, those of us in Brookline get to relax and watch.

However, just because we don't have an election today doesn't mean that there's no politicking going on. Brookline's representative Town Meeting, of which I am a Member, meets the week before Thanksgiving, and this year the big issue seems to be the zoning of Zipcars in the town. Articles 12 and 13 on the warrant deal with changes to the zoning bylaws that would make the Zipcars currently in Brookline legal. If Town Meeting doesn't pass these bylaws, it could conceivably mean the end of Zipcars in Brookline.

Although it's extremely unlikely that Town Meeting will not pass these articles, there's been a lot of debate in town regarding exactly how Car Sharing Organizations, or CSOs, should be zoned. Not surprisingly, Zipcar has emailed their Brookline customers to ask them to contact their Town Meeting Members in support of the articles. In his letter, Dan Curtin, the General Manager of Zipcar, has explained rather well the best way to approach your elected representatives. His point is a simple one: find out what precinct you live in and contact the Town Meeting Members for your precinct. He's also encouraging people to attend the Selectmen's hearing tonight to show their support; again, quite appropriate.

However, in the wake of his email to supporters, I (and I presume other TMMs) are getting emails from people who are obviously new to this sort of things. In one email, a constituent referred to Town Meeting as Town Council. In another, I was asked to vote in favor at tonight's meeting, which is not the actual Town Meeting at which I can vote but the Selectmen's hearing. So in the interest of helping out the Brookline voters, I thought I'd offer a quick and easy guide on what to do when emailing your Town Meeting Members on an issue. (Disclaimer: I am speaking here for myself, not for all Town Meeting Members.)

1. Be polite.

This should go without saying, but you'd be surprised how often it doesn't.

2. Make sure you know what precinct you live in, and write to your own Town Meeting Members, not all of Town Meeting.

Many is the time a Brookline resident will send an email to every member of Town Meeting, and all 240 email addresses are on the list. While I appreciate the enthusiasm and passion that these residents have, the fact is that sending such an email can and does dilute the message you're trying to get across.

The reality is that I have to be responsive first and foremost to my own constituents. What might be the right way to vote for a Town Meeting Member representing Coolidge Corner may not be the right way to vote for a TMM representing Washington Square. I'm far more likely to appreciate your concerns if I know that you're writing to me because I'm one of your own representatives.

Corollary: If you do decide to write to all of Town Meeting, please use the blind carbon copy function, and make it clear from the outset what precinct you are actually residing in.

3. Do some minimal research on the issue.

At the very least, please let me know what article number you're writing to me about.

4. If you vote in local elections, tell us so; if you don't, start doing so.

Whether or not a citizen voted is a matter of public record, and I have to admit that here's an issue on which I get kind of, well, strict. On the one hand, as a Town Meeting Member from my precinct I feel an obligation to represent the interests of all my constituents. But on the other hand, if you want me to take a stand on an issue on your behalf, I'd kind of like to think that you might have voted for me and might do so again in the future.

if you don't bother to show up at elections, and I hear from some other constituent on the opposite side of the issues, whose opinion do you think I might pay more attention to?

One resident of precinct 9 used to email me about issues, but never bothered to vote in town elections. After a few years I called him on it, pointing out that if he really did care about what happened on a local level (which we all should), he should make an effort to vote. Even if there are only five candidates running for the five Town Meeting slots in a particular year, voters can show up at the polls and write in anyone they want. In fact, one year, two voters got into Town Meeting through a write-in campaign that they conducted that very day at the polls.

As a politician trying to make my community a better place, if I'm going to remain in office, I need your votes. And nothing gets my attention more than an email that begins, "Dear Mr. Burstein, I am a resident of your precinct, and I vote in every local election."

Comments

And to your last point, it's a two-way street. Over the years I have contacted my ward alderman (I live in Newton) about a half-dozen times, always identifying myself as a constituent and providing my street address, and I have not once gotten even a form email in reply. So today, even though he was running unopposed, I wrote myself in as a protest vote.
As would I, in your situation.
why would anyone be against Zipcar?
The arguments against Zipcar are many and varied, but one that keeps coming up a lot was the concern that homeowners or apartment building owners would rent spaces to Zipcar, leading to strangers coming and going in a residential neighborhood at all hours.

There was also the question of whether the town should creating zoning bylaws to benefit one particular for-profit corporation.
At some point competitors to Zipcar will appear, and the same zoning bylaws will apply to them. Are 'strangers coming and going' making lots of noise when they pick up or drop off their Zipcars?
Not as far as I know, but I don't live on the same block as a Zipcar space.

Please note that I'm not the one making these arguments. You asked why some people are opposed to Zipcar, and I passed along the arguments that have been made.
Alternately, I rely on:

5. Walking up the block and around the corner, and talking to you in-person. :-)
There is that, yes. :-)
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