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Representative Town Meeting
Representative Town Meeting is a method of participatory self-government applied to municipalities. It is common in New England in the United States, and has its origins in congregational self-government exercised within the English Independent or Congregationalist churches. Representative Town Meetings are common at the local level such as that in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Representative Town Meetings share some of the features of regular New England Town Meetings. Town Meetings are open fora for all town members eligible to vote. While in the original Town Meetings that emergend in New England in the 17th century all citizens could dicuss and directly vote on legislation, some Town Meetings today are used for citizens to discuss issues, but not vote on them, with the elected council members listening and engaging in the discussion. This is a form of consultation like Direct Representation and Public Hearings. In contrast in Representative Town Meetings citizens elect members to participate and directly vote on legislation.
While this sounds like a regular local parliament or council with elected representatives, Representative Town Meetings differ from these in various ways:
- Elected members should not come from political parties and if they do this fact is not advertised. This strengthens the grass-root character of this institution as members are not professional politicians.
- Members of Representative Town Meetings usually do not get a salary or financial compensation for their participation, which also works against forming a political elite and ensures that citizens bring various expertise from their different professions.
- Representative Town Meetings are more responsive to the population than regular local parliaments. They are publicly announced and mostly open to all citizens to take part in the discussion, but not vote. Moreover citizens often have the right to petition if they would like to put a certain subject on the agenda of the meeting. And the can petition against decisions made by the Representative Town Meeting.
- Terms of Representative Town Meeting members are shorter, between one and three years, compared to the four or five year terms of members of local parliament. This reminds of the rotation principle with the goal of a higher fluctuation and thus greater inclusiveness of legislative bodies.
- Usually there are more members in Representative Town Meetings compared with common local legislative bodies, which makes them more inclusive.
- Town Meetings convene less often than regular local legislative bodies. Normally, there are a couple of meetings around the same time once per year.
Problems and Purpose
Representative Town Meetings aim at making local politics more direct and at including regular citizens, who do not represent a political party, into legislative processes. In contrast with normal open Town Meetings, they strive to be more representative of the local population by electing members from all precincts. They include members of the society, who do not just wish to speak or vote on one specific subject that directly affects their interests like in open Town Meetings, but people who commit to this legislative work for a longer period.
Citizens who wish to be elected as member of a Representative Town Meeting usually face very low barriers to running for election. Sometimes they have to collect signatures from a low amount of other citizens in support of their candidacy. In other cases they just have to declare their willingness to run. This is followed by an election by all eligible citizens.
Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
Representative Town Meetings are usually moderated discussions with certain procedures and rules, like restricted speaking time, a restrictions of how many contributions each member can make on a certain topic, and an order of contributions. The agenda of meetings are set by a specific group of members forming a board with certain authorities.
A case study of a Representative Town Meeting is available here: http://participedia.net/en/cases/representative-town-meeting-amherst-mas...
Analysis and Criticism
Representative Town Meetings are an interesting mixture of representative and participatory democratic elements. In a way, they are close to the original idea of parliament without factions and parties.
However, have some disadvantages. They are to a certain degree exclusive, as elected members tend to be more interested in politics, more educated, and more vocal than other citizens. Thus those with fewer educational resources and those who tend to be shy and less outspoken tend to be at a disadvantage. Jane Mansbridge (1983) showed in her study of a open Town Meeting that the tone in these meetings tended to be harsh at times and that many feared participation as they were scared to be laughed at or mocked. This held especially true for women. One might speculate that in Representative Town Meetings the tone might be more polite or civil as a certain honor comes with the election as member of this body. Nevertheless, exclusive tendencies persist.
Mansbridge, J. (1983). Beyond Adversary Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.