A newbie’s guide to town meeting

by susan on April 8, 2009

I have an admission to make. I’ve never been to a town meeting. … Now, that’s not technically true, but the only time I remember going I was in the fourth grade, so I’m not sure that really counts.

(Before you judge me too harshly, remember that I lived out-of-state until recently. They don’t have town meetings in Seattle.)

But it probably comes as no surprise that I’ll be in attendance this year. And in preparation, I’ve been reading up on town meeting procedures and etiquette. I thought I’d share some of what I learned with you other first-timers out there.

Think of this as a newbie’s guide to town meeting, or if you’d prefer Town Meeting for Dummies.

1. The meeting starts at 7:00 … maybe
Town Meeting can’t start without a quorum. In past years the quorum has been 150 registered voters. You’d think in a town of over 6,000 registered voters it would be relatively easy to round up 150. Apparently not. The quorum was lowered to 100 this year.

2. The warrant is the agenda
All good meetings have agendas, and town meeting is no exception. The warrant contains all the agenda items — or articles — to be considered at town meeting. Generally, the articles are taken in order. The moderator (Southborough’s moderator is David Coombs) reads each article before starting debate, and then eventually there’s a vote.

Just to keep things interesting, articles can be amended if someone — anyone — wants to change the wording. Amendments have to be voted on.

3. The Selectmen and Advisory Board make recommendations which voters are free to ignore
The Board of Selectmen and the Advisory Committee have spent literally hundreds of hours over the past few months coming up with carefully considered recommendations on each of the articles.

But just because the selectmen and Advisory Committee recommend it, doesn’t mean town meeting voters have to do it. This is the check-and-balance of our town government. You actually get to decide what to fund, not some board or elected official … Don’t let the power go to your head.

4. Yay means yes, Nay means no
Some articles require a simple majority to pass, while others need a 2/3 majority. For a simple majority, the moderator will ask voters to say Yay or Nay, and he will decide which side won. If it’s close, or if an article needs a 2/3 majority (how do you tell if 2/3 of the voters said Yay?) the moderator will either ask voters to raise their hands or stand up, and then the votes are counted.

And, yes, that means your neighbors will know how you voted. Get over it.

[Update: In Southborough, turns out we don’t say Yay or Nay. Regardless of whether it’s a simple majority or 2/3 vote, we always raise our hands. If it’s too close to call, the moderator will ask you to stand and volunteers walk up and down the aisle counting votes.]

5. When you can’t hold your tongue any longer
There’s no requirement to speak at town meeting. You can leave the meeting having said nothing more than Yay or Nay. But if you do want to talk, there’s plenty of opportunity to do so. If you’re of the mind to share your opinions, here are some helpful guidelines:

  • Wait until the moderator acknowledges you — they generally frown on the stand-up-and-shout approach.
  • Start by stating your name and address.
  • Speak only about the topic being discussed — no going back to previous topics.
  • Address your comments to the moderator, not to other town officials or other speakers.
  • Be nice. You can argue positions, but don’t attack people.

6. Mr. Moderator, I move to …
You don’t need to know the intricacies of parliamentary procedure to participate in town meeting, the moderator will take care of that. But if you’re curious, the guidelines are detailed in the front of the printed warrant (note that they’re not included in the online version of the warrant). You can get printed copies at the Town House, Library, and Transfer Station.

7. There will be snacks
Sold by the Girl Scouts in the lobby.

If you want to learn more about how town meeting works, check out the Citizen’s Guide to Town Meeting or this description of town meeting roles and responsibilities.

Southborough’s town meeting starts at 7:00 pm (hopefully) at the Trottier auditorium. See you there!

1 Donna McDaniel April 7, 2010 at 8:17 AM

You can find a detailed explanations of financial terminology used in Town Meeting (what’s the Reserve Fund, for example) and of the procedures for conducting the Meeting, including what kinds of questions can be asked (relevant only to the motion being considered) and how motions can be offered. The Annual Town Report provides reports from each department and the complete financial data for the preceding year. Both are now on the town website and available at the Library, Town House, Transfer Station, and Police Station.

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