Town Meeting Basics
What is a Town Meeting?
The purest form of democratic governing is practiced in a Town Meeting. In use for over 300 years and still in use today, it has proven to be a valuable means for many Massachusetts taxpayers to voice their opinions and directly effect change in their communities. Here in this ancient American assembly, you can make your voice heard as you and your neighbors decide the course of the government closest to you
A Town Meeting is both an event and an entity. As an event, it is a gathering of a town’s eligible voters, and is referred to as “the Town Meeting.” As an entity, it is the legislative body for towns in Massachusetts, and is referred to simply as “Town Meeting.” So you may say, “I went to the Town Meeting. Town Meeting approved the budget.”
What does Town Meeting decide?
Town Meeting decides three major things:
- It sets the salaries for the elected officials.
- It votes to appropriate money to run the town.
- It votes on the town’s local statutes, which are called by-laws.
What’s a moderator?
A moderator’s job is to run the Town Meeting. Specifically, the moderator declares the outcome of all voice votes. In Middleton the Moderator is elected at the Annual Town Election for a one year term. When the elected moderator is absent, a temporary moderator may be elected at the Town Meeting.
What’s a selectman or selectwoman?
Selectmen are a town’s executive officers. Voters elect them to the Board of Selectmen, which has five members elected for three-year overlapping terms. Selectmen are authorized to call a Town Meeting provided that they have posted a warrant. The Board of Selectmen picks and supervises a person, who, in turn, runs the town and supervises town workers. That person is known as the town administrator
What does the town clerk do?
At the Town Meeting, the clerk records all votes and takes minutes. The town clerks are elected for a three-year term. In the event of all of the selectman/selectwomen resigning, the town clerk is authorized to call a town meeting.
What is a town counsel?
The town counsel is a lawyer who works for the town. During the Town Meeting, the town counsel answers legal questions that come up. He or she is appointed by the selectmen.
What does the finance committee do?
The finance committee studies the budget in the months before the annual Town Meeting starts. It also studies financial articles (which are agenda items). Its recommendations are advisory. When the Finance Committee recommends an article on the warrant, their recommendation serves as both a motion and a second.
The seven members of the finance committee are appointed by the moderator. The finance committee’s report is distributed to all residences with the warrant.
Annual and Special Town Meetings
What’s the difference between annual and special meetings?
Each town must hold an annual Town Meeting. Additional Town Meetings are called special meetings. They may be called as many times during the year as necessary.
When are Town Meetings?
Middleton’s Annual Town Meeting is held the second Tuesday in May, starting at 7:30 pm. The Annual Town Meeting warrant is mailed to every household a week before the Meeting.
How do I find out about special meetings?
Special meetings, by their very nature, are not held at the same time every year. Watch the Town’s website and your local newspaper. The warrant for special Town Meetings is mailed to every household two weeks before the Meeting.
Who calls special Town Meetings?
The selectmen call special Town Meetings.
What’s a warrant?
The warrant lists a meeting’s time, place, and agenda. A Town Meeting’s action is not valid unless the subject was listed on the warrant.
When is the warrant available?
A warrant is available around town and mailed to every household at least 7 days before an annual meeting, and at least 14 days before a special meeting.
Who makes up the warrant?
The selectmen, who “issue” it.
What are articles?
Articles are items on the warrant.
May voters place articles on the warrant?
Yes, voters may “insert” articles in the warrant. They have to do it before selectmen “close” the warrant.
To insert an article in the warrant for an annual Town Meeting, at least 10 registered voters of the town must sign a written request. The written request of registered voters for the insertion of subjects in town meeting warrants shall not be valid unless the required number of registered voters not only sign their names but also state their residence, with street and number, if any. Voters do not have to include their addresses after their signatures, but it is a good idea.
If you want a sample of an article to use to draft your article, go to town hall and ask for a copy of the annual report, or check the Town website for warrants from the previous year’s Town Meeting, which you can use as samples. For further assistance, contact the town clerk.
Citizens may insert an article in the warrant for a special Town Meeting. Selectmen shall insert in the warrant for every special town meeting all subjects which shall be requested by 100 registered voters or 10% of the total number of voters, whichever is lesser.
How Town Meetings Operate
What is the quorum for a Town Meeting?
The minimum number of voters who may conduct business at a Middleton Town Meeting is 100.
Any member of the public may attend a Town Meeting.
Who may speak?
All of a town's registered voters may speak at Town Meeting, when recognized by the Moderator.
Who may vote?
All the town’s voters may vote.
Is the warrant the agenda?
Yes, the warrant generally states the things to be voted on, however the Town Meeting votes on the motion made for each article. In Middleton's tradition, the motion and article are usually the same, but the motion often provides more detail than the article
How do I know which article the Town Meeting is considering?
The moderator summarizes each article or reads it entirely before starting debate.
How is the budget considered?
The selectmen must print and distribute information regarding appropriations at or before the annual Town Meeting
The moderator: reads a budget item; calls for a recommendation from the finance committee on that item; calls for debate on that item; and calls for a vote on that item. Then the moderator does the same with the next budget item.
When is the Town Meeting ended?
The Town Meeting cannot be dissolved, or ended, until all articles on the warrant have been acted upon by the Meeting. If more than one session of the Meeting is required to complete actions on the warrant, the Meeting may be adjourned to a specified date and time.
Participating in Town Meetings
How do I vote?
Voters in open Town Meeting vote by various methods.
Voice vote. Many Town Meeting votes are by voice. The moderator asks that all in favor (everyone voting “yes”) say, “Yea” (which is pronounced “yay”). Then the moderator asks that all opposed (everyone voting “no”) say, “Nay.” The moderator listens and decides which side prevailed.
Show of cards. When you check into a Middleton Town Meeting you will be given a colored card. When a counted vote is needed, the moderator asks that all in favor raise their cards. “Counters” will then come forward and count the vote in favor. Then the moderator asks that all opposed raise their cards, and these are counted in the same way. The Counters report to the moderator who then announces the results of the vote.
Secret ballots. In Middleton, the vote will be by secret ballot if 25 % percent of the voters present and voting ask for it.
Are there votes that cannot be taken by voice?
Yes. Votes that require 2/3 of the vote, not a simple majority, for an article to pass. If the voice vote is not unanimous and it is not perfectly clear to the Moderator that a 2/3 plurality was obtained, then the moderator will ask for a counted vote.
What if I think that the moderator did not decide correctly a voice vote?
Stand immediately and say one of the following: “I doubt it,” “I doubt the vote,” or “I question it.” If at least six other voters stand with you, the moderator must count votes more formally. The moderator must then verify the vote by calling for a counted vote.
How do I speak in debate?
If you wish to speak, raise your hand and wait for the moderator to acknowledge you. When the moderator acknowledges you, state your name and your address.
Speak about the topic being discussed. Don’t speak about a previous topic (unless there is a motion to rescind or reconsider).
Make your comments to the moderator, not to the Town Meeting or individual Town Meeting Members.
You may attack a previous speaker’s argument, but do not attack a previous speaker. For example, do not say, “The previous speaker is dead wrong.” Instead, say something like, “I disagree with the argument we just heard.”