Data

General Issues
Economics
Governance & Political Institutions
Planning & Development
Specific Topics
Budget - Local
Public Amenities
Land Use
Location
Massachusetts
United States
Scope of Influence
Regional
Ongoing
Yes
Legality
Yes
Facilitators
Yes
Facilitator Training
Professional Facilitators
Face-to-Face, Online, or Both
Face-to-Face
Types of Interaction Among Participants
Ask & Answer Questions
Discussion, Dialogue, or Deliberation
Express Opinions/Preferences Only
Decision Methods
General Agreement/Consensus
Voting
If Voting
Plurality
Communication of Insights & Outcomes
Public Report
Public Hearings/Meetings
Traditional Media
New Media
Type of Funder
Local Government
Regional Government
Staff
Yes

CASE

Town Meetings in Massachusetts

First Submitted By Townsend

Most Recent Changes By Scott Fletcher, Participedia Team

General Issues
Economics
Governance & Political Institutions
Planning & Development
Specific Topics
Budget - Local
Public Amenities
Land Use
Location
Massachusetts
United States
Scope of Influence
Regional
Ongoing
Yes
Legality
Yes
Facilitators
Yes
Facilitator Training
Professional Facilitators
Face-to-Face, Online, or Both
Face-to-Face
Types of Interaction Among Participants
Ask & Answer Questions
Discussion, Dialogue, or Deliberation
Express Opinions/Preferences Only
Decision Methods
General Agreement/Consensus
Voting
If Voting
Plurality
Communication of Insights & Outcomes
Public Report
Public Hearings/Meetings
Traditional Media
New Media
Type of Funder
Local Government
Regional Government
Staff
Yes

Town Meetings in Massachusetts generally follow the New England (open) format which gives all voters residing within the relevant jurisdiction a say on everything from budgets to zoning laws. Citizens place items on a 'warrant' which are then discussed and voted on by all.

Problems and Purpose

Massachusetts employs Open Town Meetings: local legislatures that allow residents of the relevant jurisdiction the ability to vote on matters of community importance. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has 351 cities and towns, and nearly 300 towns use Open Town Meetings as their legislature.[1]

Background History and Context

In the early 1600s, Open Town Meetings were initially open only to land-owners. Town Meetings have become more egalitarian over the centuries, and are now open to the public. Registered voters are the legislators, however. Joseph Harrington, former Moderator of Wenham, Massachusetts, ties the originating principles of contemporary town meeting to ancient Rome, and writer Frank Bryan traces it to ancient Greece. In 1600s, however, when the English came to what is now known as the American continent, they brought their local governance forms with them. "The title Moderator was also an import form England. Since at least 1573 it had been the title used for the person who presided and preserved order at a town meeting. Apparently a moderator was elected by each meeting from those present, to preside for the duration of that meeting. By 1685 a moderator was elected at the annual town meeting for a year's term [...] As in England, attendance at town meetings was obligatory for all freemen who owned land in the town."[2] Town Meetings were held in the church meetinghouse until about 1833.[3]

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

The Massachusetts General Laws and each individual town's local charters or bylaws create the legal framework for Open Town Meetings.[4] Voters do not receive payment. The Moderator usually receives a small stipend ($100-$500), and the town's taxpayers pay for the expense of having police and fire personnel on hand to handle emergencies.[5]

Participant Recruitment and Selection

Any registered voter of the town may speak and vote. They may place articles on the agenda (called a "warrant"). The Select Board, or Board of Selectmen is the executive branch of town government and place items on the warrant. In most towns, citizens on volunteer committees (e.g., Planning Board, Housing Authority, Board of Health) may request that an item be placed on the warrant. For annual meetings, held in the spring, 10 or more citizens may petition to place an article on the warrant. For Special Town Meetings (typically held in the fall, but may be held at any time), 100 citizens may place an item on the warrant. Select Boards are legally obligated to hold a Town Meeting if 200 citizens petition to have a Town Meeting. Town Clerks keep the official record of the meeting. Some town Moderators permit children to speak.

Methods and Tools Used

Town Meetings in Massachusetts general adhere to the Open (New England) Town Meeting format; however, some have adopted the Limited (Representative) alternative, such as the town of Amherst.[6] In the first instance, participation is open to all and all matters on the docket are eligible to be voted on. In the limited (representative) format, residents elect representatives who are then responsible for voting on matters discussed during the meeting.[7] All meetings are moderated and generally follow Robert’s Rules of Order and the guidelines set out in Town Meeting Time, a publication by the Massachusetts Moderators Association.[8] 

What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation

Generally speaking, Town Meetings in Massachusetts usually adhere to the Open (New England) Town Meeting format, which allows all citizens to deliberate and vote on issues relevant to the community. Non-voters may speak at the discretion of the Moderator, a person elected by the town voters to preside over town meetings and keep order. All procedures are governed by Massachusetts General Laws, a town's bylaws and/or charter, and a rule book (such as Robert’s Rules of Order), usually Town Meeting Time, prepared by the Massachusetts Moderators Association. Moderator discretion and rulings handle the rest.[9] Citizens must speak to the issue, and deliberation must stay within the "four corners" of the motion on the article under consideration by the voters. No one may address anyone else without leave of the Moderator. Personal attacks are prohibited, and citizens may be ejected from a meeting if they do not adhere to the rules. Voters may amend motions on articles.[10]

Voting is usually done by a raising of voting cards. The Moderator calls for those in favor to raise their cards first, and then those opposed. The moderator then calls the outcome. If the Moderator is in doubt, or if seven voters call a doubt, then voting proceeds by tellers counting individual votes. Some towns use electronic keypads to tally votes.[11]

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Voters in Open Town Meetings have a great deal of power. They can decide budgets, create or amend regular or zoning bylaws, and offer elected officials a sense of the town's opinions,even on non-binding matters.

Rebecca Townsend at the University of Massachusetts notes the following about actions taken on Town Meeting decisions: “While one meeting may involve several evening sessions, no action can occur on the proposals on the articles unless town meeting completes the warrant. This involves voting each motion on every article up or down, voting to dismiss it, or sending it to a town advisory or regulatory board. Proposals become binding when town meeting is dissolved. Each meeting is its own bound event; no issue may carry over to the next.”[12]

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Want to contribute an analysis of this initiative? Help us complete this section!

See Also

New England (Open) Town Meetings

Representative Town Meeting

Representative Town Meeting in Amherst (Massachusetts, USA)

References

[1] Townsend, R.M. “Town Meeting as a Communication Event: Democracy’s Act Sequence.” Research on Language and Social Interaction. 42 (2009): 68-89. https://hartford.academia.edu/Departments/Hillyer_College_Humanities_Department/Documents 

[2] Johnson, R.B., Trustman, B.A., Wadsworth, C.Y., & Garfield, R, Town Meeting Time: A Handbook of Parliamentary Law (Massachusetts: Massachusetts Moderators Association, 2001), 167. 

[3] Johnson, R.B., Trustman, B.A., Wadsworth, C.Y., & Garfield, R, Town Meeting Time.

[4] Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "Massachusetts Laws about Town Meetings." http://www.mass.gov/courts/case-legal-res/law-lib/laws-by-subj/about/townmeeting.html 

[5] Massachusetts Moderators Association. http://www.massmoderators.org

[6] Secretary of State's Office. "Citizen's Guide to Town Meetings." http://www.sec.state.ma.us/cis/cistwn/twnidx.htm

[7] Secretary of State's Office. "Citizen's Guide to Town Meetings." http://www.sec.state.ma.us/cis/cistwn/twnidx.htm

[8] “Massachusetts Law about Town Meetings,” Mass.Gov, last modified April 21, 2018, https://www.mass.gov/info-details/massachusetts-law-about-town-meetings

[9] Townsend, R.M. “Widening the Circumference of Scene: Local Politics, Local Metaphysics.” KBJournal. Spring 2006. www.kbjournal.org/townsend

[10] Townsend, R. M. "Longmeadow Town Meeting." Town of Longmeadow (2016): 1-6. http://www.longmeadow.org/DocumentCenter/View/2284

[11] Secretary of State's Office. "Citizen's Guide to Town Meetings." http://www.sec.state.ma.us/cis/cistwn/twnidx.htm

[12] Townsend, R.M. “Widening the Circumference of Scene: Local Politics, Local Metaphysics.” KBJournal. Spring 2006. www.kbjournal.org/townsend

External Links 

Massachusetts Citizen's Guide to Town Meetings http://www.sec.state.ma.us/cis/cistwn/twnidx.htm

Notes

Lead image: Patch File Photo, https://goo.gl/nENwMb