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frip1// , 11’1′ Ildicitiii11111111 1Mlit _ , -.1.;,0,0. DAN HUBIG town’s seven elementary schools might have to be closed. Neighborhood schools have been an important feature of Arlington life, but with budgets growing tighter and the schools in need of renovation, there was a case to be made that seven schools were too many to maintain. I am convinced that at a certain point there was a majority on the School Committee prepared to vote to close a school. But an active group of parents demanded that the case be argued on its merits. The Advocate published several columns and numerous letters from parents that spelled out reasons to keep all seven schools open. Self-interest was a factor, of course, but there was more than that. A sophisticated argument emerged that addressed the long-range financial and educational interests of the town, and that noted, relevantly, that enrollments were on the increase. At the same time, no one on the School Committee came forward with a rationale for closing schools. Public hearings drew hundreds of people, and it became clear that at least that part of the community that was participating in the decision was solidly opposed to closures. When it came time to decide, the committee wisely brought itself in harmony with the public consensus. It’s a homely vignette, and it’s not meant to suggest that the people always triumph. The point is that a decision that was of vital concern to some citizens was not greeted with the sense of futility that is so often inspired by decisions at the state and national level. Nor was it argued in the kind of simplistic terms one finds so often when wellfinanced interests take to the airwaves in big-stakes battles. People were not left with that sour taste of frustration that has become part of national politics. ARLINGTON HAS a 252-member representative Town Meeting that meets every spring for two nights a week. In an earlier generation, it was mostly elderly gentlemen who gathered in Arlington’s stately town hall auditorium to approve the town’s budgets. Now a mix of men and women, with more young family members, participates. Still, watching Town Meeting operate, one can’t help being struck by how anachronistic it is. Who in this day and age would conceive that 252 people could get together to decide how a town should spend its money? It is time-consuming, inefficient and often preoccupied with budgetary complexity that only a few can comprehend. Each season one can detect worry that the machinery of Town Meeting grinds too slowlyand that a few cranks can bring it near breakdown. It’s true that the process suffers in direct relation to how many oddballs and windbags take the floor. I tried to bolster confidence in the institution editorially, once stating \(and with no one taking asses in Town Meeting appeared to be about 20 to 1, no worse than in the general population, and certainly a better proportion than you would find in Congress or the state legislature. The more important point is that a citizen has less cause to complain about govern ment spending or other action when he has the opportunity to take part in key decisions on the Town Meeting floor. Because the representative body is not a captive of monied interests at the local level, town government is not a target of contempt the way big government is. In addition to Town Meeting, Arlington has a somewhat more unusual organization that attempts to include the citizen in decision-making. Four years ago, a group of local officials founded a group called Vision 2020 that is designed to get residents thinking about what kind of town Arlington should become over the next three decades. Several task groups now meet regularly, with dozens of consistent participants and hundreds more who plug into the work in at least a small way. Local officials, the thinking goes, get so caught up in the week-to-week crises of town affairs that long-range planning is almost always on the back burner. Vision 2020 attempts to give citizens some of the responsibility for planning. 22 JANUARY 13, 1995