Representative Town Meeting

June 17, 2020 Jaskiran Gakhal, Participedia Team
September 5, 2018 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
June 27, 2018 Lucy J Parry, Participedia Team
February 23, 2018 richards1000
July 30, 2012 richards1000

Representative Town Meeting is a method of participatory self-government common at the local level in New England. Originating in New England's congregationalist churches, these meetings aim to engage local citizens in more direct legislative processes.

Problems and Purpose

Representative Town Meeting is a method of participatory self-government applied to municipalities. They are common at the local level such as that in Amherst, Massachusetts

Representative Town Meetings share some of the features of New England Town Meetings in that they are both open to all residents of voting age. In New England, the meeting model which emerged in the 17th century allowed all citizens to dicuss and directly vote on legislation. Today, most meetings in the New Engalnd area only allow citizens to discuss issues with elected council members, but not vote on them. In contrast, in Representative Town Meetings, citizens elect members to participate and directly vote on legislation. Thus, while New England Town Meetings are a form of consultation like Public Hearings, Representative Town Meetings are more analagous to local parliaments or councils with elected representatives given legislative power. 

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.

Origins and Development

Representative town meetings are common in New England in the United States, and its origins are in congregational self-government exercised within the English Independent or Congregationalist churches.

Participant Recruitment and Selection

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.

How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making

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.

Unlike the New England Town Meeting model, Representative Town Meetings are similar to local parliamentary bodies or councils in their legislative functions. However, the Representative Town Meeting model differs from these other participatory institutions in the following ways: 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 they can petition against decisions made by the Representative Town Meeting.
  4. 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 rotation principle has the goal of a higher fluctuation and thus greater inclusiveness of legislative bodies.
  5. Usually there are more members in Representative Town Meetings compared with common local legislative bodies, which makes them more inclusive.
  6. Town Meetings convene less often than regular local legislative bodies. Normally, there are a couple of meetings around the same time once per year.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

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Analysis and Lessons Learned

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, they 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. [1] 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.

See Also

Representative Town Meeting (Amherst, Massachusetts, USA) 

New England Town Meetings 


[1] Mansbridge, J. (1983). Beyond Adversary Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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