New England Town Meetings

Summary

New England or 'Open' Town Meetings are public forums that promote participation in local governance. Town meetings allow residents to voice their opinions on public issues and deliberate and vote on laws and budgets. "Proponents of the town assembly emphasize that it is the purest form of democracy that ensures that all policy decisions are in the public interest since no intermediaries are placed between the voters and the public decisions."[1] In this regard it differs slightly from Representative Town Meetings which also have long history in New England. Unlike the Representative Town Meeting, the New England format allows any and all citizens to directly deliberate and vote on legislation. As such, state historian Christopher Collier has called it “the most democratic form of government one can imagine. It's the closest to the people, it involves the largest number of people, it's the most open.”[2] In more recent decades, the integration of information and communications technologies like Audience Response Systems has allowed the New England Town Meeting format to maintain relevance in the 21st Century 'digital age'. 

Problems and Purpose

The purpose the New England Town Meetings are to include registered voters of the community to decide new laws and budgets in a town forum. Town Meetings originated in Puritan New England as a way to preserve local autonomy and self-government over issues such as religious freedom and tax laws. In more modern times, New England Town Meetings have suffered a drop in attendance attributable to the increase in town size and a decrease in the number and variety of political issues under local control. While their purpose continues to be the granting of an open, impartial forum for public opinion, John Gastil notes that meetings are less ‘open’ than they used to be; composed primarily of stakeholders and invited guests, participants often “simply tell committee members what they want to hear."[3] Gastil and others have also criticized the deliberative quality of the meetings and time given to minority or dissenting opinions.[4] While New England Town Meetings have been the traditional setting for community-led governance, new forms of public participation may be replacing them or civic engagement in local political issues may simply be declining.  

History

The New England Town Meetings first began in the New England colonies at the beginning of the 1600s. Having travelled to America to pursue religious freedom, the Puritans quickly developed a method of town meeting with which to discuss and decide on community-specific matters. The meetings were held in colonial meeting houses which, except in Rhode Island, were built at tax payet expense and served both religious and town business purposes.[5] Town meetings have been ongoing since that time in Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and few other New England states. Some states or communities - like Amherst, Massachusetts - adopted or transitioned to/from the Representative Town Meeting model.

[Photo courtesy of Weber State University]

Participant Recruitment and Selection

The meetings are open to the general public. Some town meetings can be larger than others depending on the location and what issues are on the ballot. In general, local and regional officials attend to listen and answer questions. Members of community-based organizations or stakeholder groups may also be invited. Recruitment for Town Meetings does not appear to have caught up to other participatory events which increasingly make use of social media. Most meetings see the same participants or, depending on the agenda for that evening, dedicated stakeholders and interest groups.

Deliberation, Decisions and Public Interaction

A typical New England Town Meeting allows any registered voter the ability to speak and vote. Before each meeting, citizens may request that an item be placed on the night's agenda (called a "warrant"). In the case of regular (monthly) meetings, it is usually the executive - the Select Board or Board of Selectmen - or citizens on volunteer committees that place items on the warrant. However, during annual meetings - typically held in the Spring - 10 or more citizens are allowed to petition the Board to have an item placed on the warrant. Similarly, Special Town Meetings which are generally held in the fall time allow 100 citizens to have an item added to the warrant.

While Town Meetings generally follow a set schedule, Select Boards are legally obligated to hold a Meeting if 200 citizens petition to have one.

New England Town Meetings are also called "Open" Town Meetings because they allow all citizens to deliberate. Voters and non-voters alike are given the opportunity to speak but only at the discretion of an elected Moderator. The general procedures of each meeting are determined by a town's bylaws and/or charter and also follow the rules set out in the 'Town Meeting Time' - a document issues by the Massachusetts Moderators Association.

Through the moderator, deliberation is kept orderly and on-point. Speakers are required to stay on topic when discussing an article under consideration by voters and no member is allowed to address another without the permission of the Moderator. Personal attacks are prohibited, and citizens may be ejected from a meeting if they do not adhere to the rules.

Deliberation is an essential step in the process as it allows participants to discuss, debate, and amend motions before voting on them. Once a consensus has been reached or no more speakers are forthcoming, the moderator calls on those in favor and then on those in opposition to raise their voting cards. A tally of votes is not usually conducted unless the moderator is in doubt or if at least seven voters speak out in doubt of the called result. If a count is needed, tellers may be called upon or, in more recent years, some towns are turning to electronic keypads which automatically tally and display the number of votes for an against.

Examples

The Massachusetts’ Open Town Meeting dates back to 1680. This meeting is primarily a local law-making body. "The development of the finance committee as a valuable adjunct represents the most important change in the town meeting structure in these towns."[6] In order for a open town meeting to occur, one must summon a warrant on what to discuss and there is a facilitator present to make sure members stay on track. This ensures the public that the meeting will have a voted outcome at the end.

The Vermont Open Town Meeting began in 1777 in Windsor. The outcome of the first meeting was to solve the dispute between New Hampshire and Vermont. "And whereas the Territory, which now comprehends the State of Vermont, did antecedently of right belong to the government of New Hampshire, and the former Governor, thereof, viz. his excellency Benning Wentworth, Esq. granted many charters of lands and corporations within this State to the present inhabitants and others. And whereas the late Lieutenant-Governor Colden, of New York, with others, did, in violation, of the tenth command, covet those very lands."[7]

Influence, Outcomes and Effects

The New England Town Meetings try to "ensure that all policy decisions are in the public interest since no intermediaries are placed between the voters and the public decisions."[8] The effect should be to improve one's community by discovering during these meetings what is really needed. Legislation voted on during these meetings has ranged from schools and educational material to public amenities and zoning laws. 

The legacy of the Open Town Meeting as both a method and symbol for local self-governance has been preserved thanks to the efforts of participatory democrats. AmericaSpeaks21st Century Town Meeting format updated the process for the modern era by integrating Audience Response Systems (ARS). Since their development, the 21st Century Town Meeting has been used in numerous countries around the world; successfully establishing the 400-year Open Town Meeting tradition as a go-to method for large-group deliberative decision-making.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Perhaps the largest issue facing the New England Town Meeting is low attendance. According to an observational study of over 1500 town meetings in 2003, Frank Bryan reported “238,603 acts of participation by 63,140 citizens in 210 different towns.”[9] Bryan concludes that this “show[s] that citizens will participate—and often at great cost to themselves—when they know the political arena is small enough for them to make a difference and there are issues at stake that really matter to them.”[10] However, Bryan admits that attendance levels have been steadily dropping which he attributes to an increase in town size and “a decline in the number and variety of issues over which towns have control.”[11] Indeed, the last point is perhaps the most significant when it comes not only to the New England Town Meetings but public participation in local issues in general. In his book Political Communication and Deliberation, John Gastil states notes that “the most comprehensive study of participation in public meetings found that in the United States in 2003, twenty-five percent of citizens reported attending one or more such meeting in the past year. The overwhelming majority (eighty-five percent) of those who had not attended any meetings said that they had never been invited to one.”[12] One way to solve this problem, is to increase recruitment efforts at younger demographics (using social media, for example). Incentives could also be used. Raffle prizes in the form of free movie tickets or restaurant discounts give willing benefactors new business and increased visibility. Low levels of civic education or unfamiliarity with deliberation could also be contributing to low attendance rates. Gastil recommends that, when deliberating on a more social level, community members be briefed on how to best deliberate and that the participatory design of meetings allow for the respectful and equal voicing of opinion.[13]

The problem of ‘name-calling’ and generally disrespectful and unconstructive communication at town meetings could also be mitigated through the use of online forums. While such sites have been in use, Gastil notes that a Boston Globe report found they were falling out of favour.[14] Since Gastil was writing in 2008, however, the internet and online forms of public participation are still around. According to Gastil, online forums could include a larger population than just the New England states and help keep the discussion objective. Minority opinions may gain more voice which is another positive since the chances of community improvement increase with the number of solutions considered and deliberated. The key, however, is that deliberation and consensus formation be a final step in the decision-making process and, as Gastil emphasizes, the process of deliberation must "create a solid information base, prioritize key values, identify a broad range of solutions, weigh the pros and cons, and make the best decision possible."[15]

 

Endnotes

[1] Joseph Francis Zimmerman, The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999), i.

[2] Charles Collier qtd. Lubov, Charlotte, “Town Meetings: History in Action,” New York Times, May 6, 1990, http://www.nytimes.com/1990/05/06/nyregion/town-meetings-history-in-acti....

[3] John Gastil, Political Communication and Deliberation, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing, 2008), 190.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Paul Wainwright, “Background Information About Colonial Meetinghouses,” Colonial Meetinghouses of New England, (2010), http://www.colonialmeetinghouses.com/background_information.shtml.

[6] "1786 Constitution of Vermont," Wikisource, https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=1786_Constitution_of_Vermont...

[7] Ibid.

[8] Zimmerman, xi.

[9] Frank M. Bryan, Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Gastil, 192.

[13] Ibid., 183-188.

[14] Ibid., 190.

[15] Ibid., 184. 

 

Secondary Sources

Charles Collier qtd. Lubov, Charlotte, “Town Meetings: History in Action,” New York Times, May 6, 1990, http://www.nytimes.com/1990/05/06/nyregion/town-meetings-history-in-acti....

John Gastil, Political Communication and Deliberation, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing, 2008).

Joseph Francis Zimmerman, The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999).

Paul Wainwright, “Background Information About Colonial Meetinghouses,” Colonial Meetinghouses of New England, (2010), http://www.colonialmeetinghouses.com/background_information.shtml.

"1786 Constitution of Vermont," Wikisource, https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=1786_Constitution_of_Vermont...

External Links

History of New England Town Meetings: http://www.colonialmeetinghouses.com/index_01.shtml

Boston Globe on Low Attendance Rates: http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2010/01/03/in_some_towns_town_...

Slate on the Town Meeting Experience: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2013/05/new_eng...

The American Archivist (Harvard) on New England Town Meetings: http://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.25.2.a41x928626p71t16...

New England Historical Society on the Town Meeting: http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/oldest-town-meeting-6-states/

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