Massachusetts Town Meeting

Massachusetts Town Meeting


Problems and Purpose

Open Town Meetings are local legislatures that are open to any registered voter in a town in a New England state with this form of local legislature. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has 351 cities and towns, and nearly 300 towns use Open Town Meetings as their legislature. 


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." (Town Meeting Time, p. 167).  

"As in England, attendance at town meetings was obligatory for all freemen who owned land in the town." (p. 167) Town Meetings were held in the church meetinghouse until about 1833, according to Harrington in Town Meeting Time. 

Originating Entities and Funding

The Massachusetts General Laws and each individual town's local charters or bylaws create the legal framework for Open Town Meetings. 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. 

Participant 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.

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

Massachusetts Open Town Meetings allow for all citizens to deliberate. 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, usually Town Meeting Time, prepared by the Massachusetts Moderators Association. Moderator discretion and rulings handle the rest. 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.

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. She or he 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. 

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. 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Moderators in the Massachusetts Moderators Association regularly gather to address ways to improve the participation and procedures of Open Town Meetings and Representative Town Meetings. North Andover's Moderator allows for questions to be emailed into the meeting. Some towns' use 



Secondary Sources

Bryan, F. Real Democracy:  The New England Town Meeting and How it Works. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "Massachusetts Laws about Town Meetings." 

Clark, S. & Bryan, F. All Those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community. Montpelier, VT: RavenMark Publication, 2005.

Mansbridge, J. Beyond Adversary Democracy. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1980. 

Massachusetts Moderators Association.

Secretary of State's Office. "Citizen's Guide to Town Meetings."

Townsend, R. M. "Longmeadow Town Meeting." Town of Longmeadow (2016): 1-6.

Townsend, R.M. “Town Meeting as a Communication Event: Democracy’s Act Sequence.” Research on Language and Social Interaction. 42 (2009): 68-¬89.

Townsend, R.M. . “Local Communication Studies.”  Lead Review Essay.  Quarterly Journal of Speech 92 (2006): 202-222. 

Townsend, R.M.  “Widening the Circumference of Scene: Local Politics, Local Metaphysics.” KBJournal. Spring 2006. 

Townsend, R.M. “Representative Town Meeting.” Participedia. 21 Dec. 2011.¬town¬meeting

Zimmerman, J.A. The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action. Westport, CT: Praeger. 1999.

External Links






United States
Massachusetts US



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Andere: Förderung: 
Elected Moderator
In Person, online oder beides: 
In Person
Andere: Interaktion zwischen Teilnehmern: 
Interaction flows through the Moderator
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Andere: Entscheidungsmethode: 
Simple majority or supermajority used in some instances


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Moderator and Clerk are the only two specific officials required to hold a Town Meeting
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