Friday, May 1, 1998

Town Meeting: a guide for new (and old) residents

The following writeup was prepared by the Boxborough Board of Selectmen and adapted by the Mosquito.

What is Town Meeting?

Government by Town Meeting is the purest form of the democratic legislative process. While the selectmen, boards and department heads supervise the day-to-day running of the town, their authority extends only to managing employees and administering the expenditures that have already been allocated by Town Meeting. Open Town Meeting government gives maximum power to the individual voter.

During a typical Town Meeting, voters will approve the town's annual budget for schools and general government, vote on additional capital expenditures for equipment or buildings, authorize changes to zoning or other town bylaws, approve compensation for employees and elected officials, acquire roads or parcels of land, and more. Most of the money the town spends is generated from the local property tax. (Some comes from state aid or special funds.) Each spending decision made by Town Meeting has a direct effect on each voter's tax bill and on the quality of service the town provides for schools, highways, police and fire protection, conservation, recreation, library, etc. For this reason real Town Meetings, unlike the watered-down versions promoted by recent presidents, are not merely social or public-relations events, or forums for the exchange of ideas, though they do serve those functions. Rather, Town Meeting is the official convening of a legally constituted legislative body with power to make laws, to levy taxes, and to authorize expenditures.

What is the Warrant?

The Warrant is the agenda for Town Meeting. Town Meeting is not over until all the agenda items on the Warrant (the "Articles") have been decided: approved, defeated or passed over. Only those articles of business that have been included in the Warrant may be legally acted upon at Town Meeting. Warrants can vary in length, and the amount of debate on a given article can vary widely, from none to an entire evening's worth or longer. No one can predict how many nights it will take to complete the business of any given Town Meeting, so it is a form of government that requires stamina.

What about the election?

Although it is held at a separate place and time, the election is part of Town Meeting. Town officials are elected, and debt exclusion or tax overrides are also decided by election ballot. A debt exclusion exempts from the Proposition 2 1/2 limits the amounts borrowed for the duration of the loan, while an override raises the tax cap permanently. Some Town Meeting expenditures require both an affirmative vote at Town Meeting and the passage of a ballot question.

Who participates in Town Meeting?

Voters: Every registered voter in town is a legislator, with full power to participate in budgeting, allocation of funds and law-making. At Town Meeting the job of the voter is to listen, to ask questions, to offer arguments for or against a question, and to vote to decide each article on the Warrant. Anyone who is not a registered voter of the town is welcome to attend Town Meeting, but may not vote, and can address Town Meeting only with permission. Non-registered voters sit in their own section of the hall.

Moderator: The elected official who presides over Town Meeting and is responsible for its conduct. The moderator has broad authority to regulate debate and rule speakers in or out of order. Carlisle's current moderator is Marshall Simonds.

Town clerk: The town clerk is the elected official responsible for maintaining town records, conducting elections, and recording the votes and actions taken at Town Meeting. Carlisle's clerk is Sarah W. Andreassen.

Town counsel: A representative from Kopelman and Paige, the firm providing legal services to the town, attends Town Meeting to offer advice as to the legality of proposed actions the town may be considering.

Finance committee: This committee is appointed by the board of selectmen. They have the authority to consider all municipal questions with a financial impact and make recommendations to Town Meeting. The FinCom reviews every line item in each department's budget, and submits the total budget. They recommend for or against each article on the Warrant, based on their calculation of its impact on the tax rate, the town's financial position, and the spending priorities of the town. Their report is included with the Warrant.

Board of selectmen: The selectmen's role at Town Meeting is limited: they prepare the Warrant and cause it to be mailed. They will often make the main motion under an article, offer information, or answer questions, but each member of the board votes independently as a citizen.

Boards and committees: These elected and appointed boards have jurisdiction over various areas— schools, planning, zoning, conservation, recreation,, library, elder affairs, etc. Their representatives will often offer the main motion on an article, give special presentations, or supply information on articles being considered.

What Happens at Town Meeting?

Town Meeting is conducted as follows:

Each article is taken up in a similar way. First the moderator asks for a motion concerning the article, and a motion is made, generally by the person who put the article on the Warrant, recommending action to be taken with regard to the article.

The moderator then asks for the finance committee recommendation on the article, and then returns the floor to the original mover, who begins debate by offering background on the article.

Following the mover's remarks,

debate is open. Voters must be recognized by the moderator. They may ask questions, voice comments or criticism, or offer information, but their remarks must be limited to the content of the article. When no more debate is offered, a vote is taken, or someone can end debate by calling the question, and the meeting votes on whether to continue debate or vote right away. Articles are usually considered in the order in which they appear on the Warrant. An article may be taken out of order by majority vote.

Voting: Most articles are decided by voice vote, a simple majority being required. If a count is needed (zoning changes require a two-thirds majority), it is conducted by show of hands, or by having voters stand while the tellers count them.

Amendments: Amendments can be offered to any article being debated. The moderator will then recognize the mover of the amendment, and the amendment will be debated and voted up or down before returning to debate on the article as a whole.

Quorum: There is a 150-voter quorum required for any session of Town Meeting. The moderator can call a session to order only if 150 voters registered in Carlisle are present.

Reconsideration: An article may be reconsidered at any session of the Town Meeting in which it was originally voted. The town can vote to amend or defeat an article that has already passed, or re-vote and pass an article that was previously defeated.