Friday, May 3, 2002
Living in Carlisle An introduction to Town Meeting
Miss Town Meeting and you're missing part of what makes Carlisle unique. "There's no better way to get to know the town," says moderator Sarah Brophy. But if you're new to Carlisle, you may have some questions (reservations?) about attending the upcoming Town Meeting. Don't be discouraged the following is a primer providing the basic information you need to become a full Town Meeting participant.
What is Town Meeting?
Town Meeting has been called "the oldest expression of democracy in the western hemisphere." It is a New England tradition dating back to the Pilgrims.
In Massachusetts each entity defined as a "town" is required to hold an annual Town Meeting to vote on the town budget, on non-budgetary outlays from the town coffers for the coming year, and on any significant bylaw changes. In addition, a state law affectionately termed "Prop. 2 1/2," requires that all increases in average property taxes above 2 1/2 percent be presented as budget overrides for approval both at Town Meeting and at a town-wide election. The election ballot also presents town officers up for reelection.
Who may go to Town Meeting?
Anyone may go, but only registered voters may vote. If you're not yet registered, it's too late for this year's meeting and election (but you can register for next year at Town Hall). Unregistered residents and visitors may attend Town Meeting as spectators; they receive "non-voter" stickers and sit in a special section. Non-voters may speak only with the permission of the meeting.
Children may come and should sit with their parents in the "family rows" at the back of the auditorium. Parents must remove crying or disruptive children immediately. Town Meeting moderator Brophy, hoping to spark interest in town affairs among Carlisle's young says, "I encourage students to come and observe."
How do I prepare?
A copy of the Warrant and the agenda for Town Meeting was mailed to each household last week (brochure with a light blue cover if you're digging it out of a pile of mail). The Warrant this year consists of twenty-four articles, each representing a proposed expense or bylaw change. Most articles are drafted and presented by the town selectmen (governing board), but some are "by petition," meaning a citizen or group of citizens collected enough signatures to add the article to the Warrant. For background information on each Warrant article, consult the summaries on pages 1, 12 and 13 in this issue of the Mosquito. "Know Your Town," a brochure available from Town Hall, provides general information on Carlisle town government.
What happens at Town Meeting?
The town moderator presides over the meeting and presents the articles. The sponsor of an article makes a motion, and the selectmen and finance committees state their recommendations. Any voter wishing to voice an opinion or ask a question may do so when recognized by the moderator. A voter may also amend an article by writing another amendment, reading it aloud, and passing it to the moderator. When an article or amendment has been thoroughly discussed, a vote is taken by raising hands. A count is taken only if the vote is too close to call, or if seven voters request it.
Why should I go?
The Warrant looks daunting and full of numbers, there's nothing more boring than a long meeting about finance, it's tough to get a sitter . . . These are just some reasons you may think of giving Town Meeting a pass. Think twice you are abandoning your chance to represent your point of view and, potentially, influence the course of a vote. Whether your concern is schools, taxes, conservation, or another town issue, you can't later complain about the decision the town made if you didn't participate.
If you find the Warrant confusing, Brophy sympathizes. She recalls attending her first Town Meeting when she arrived in Carlisle from upstate New York where Town Meeting is unheard of. "I was intimidated. I thought everyone knew all about town government and I knew nothing." She encourages newcomers to speak up. "Everyone has a right to ask questions. I welcome any question about procedure it's how we all learn."
And while Town Meeting may sound long and boring, it's not. Brophy notes the flavor of Carlisle Town Meeting is less "stuffy" and procedural than that of most other communities. "This is a small, unregimented, very informal Town Meeting," she says. "I've attended other Town Meetings and seen nothing like it. It's to be valued."
Discussions are occasionally humorous and often thought-provoking and educational. Most articles pass quickly there are usually only three or four generating much discussion. Discussion is free but controlled, and anyone can call for a vote. No new articles are introduced after 10:00 p.m. If the Warrant isn't covered by then, Town Meeting spills over into a second night.
When you take part in Town Meeting, you are taking part in a tradition that formed the roots of democracy and remains one of the few examples of direct representative government in America. A Rockefeller Panel Report on American Democracy noted, "..the ordinary man may or may not be the best judge of his own interests,but if he doesn't exercise effective authority over matters that are in his immediate range of interest and competence, he may be a well-tended animal, but he will not be a free man."
Throughout most of the country the idea that a voter can show up and directly influence town decisions is foreign. Even in New England more towns are moving to representative Town Meetings, where the everyday citizen can watch but not vote. So perhaps the best reason to go to Carlisle's Town Meeting and vote our consciences is because we can.
Town Meeting is Monday May 6 at the school's Corey Auditorium, 7:00 p.m.
If second night it will be May 7, same time and place.
Town election is Tuesday May 14 at Town Hall, 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 pm.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito