Repost: A newbie’s guide to town meeting

[Ed note: Here’s another post to help get you ready for town meeting. I originally published this one in the run-up to town meeting two years ago. Since I know some of you will be attending town meeting for the first time this year, I thought it might be helpful to run it again.]

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 in 2008.

2. It’s a long meeting and you might get munchy
Thankfully, the Girl Scouts will be there in the lobby to sell you yummy snacks.

3. 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 (but not always). 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.

4. 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.

5. Casting your vote
Most articles require a simple majority to pass, but some need a 2/3 majority. The moderator will let you know which needs which. When it’s time to vote, you simply raise your hand. If the vote is too close to call, the moderator will ask voters to stand and volunteers walk up and down the aisles counting votes.

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

6. 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 hello to the neighbor sitting next to you. 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:

  • Walk to one of the microphones in the aisle and 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.

7. 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. That said, there are a couple of terms that are handy to know.

When it comes time to approve budgets, the moderator will read the name of each department. If there’s one you want to ask questions about, modify, or in any way discuss, just yell “Hold.” After all the budgets are read and the ones that weren’t held are voted on, the moderator will cycle back to start debate on the ones that were held.

There’s a darn good chance someone will pipe up to hold the school budget, and probably some of the other big ones. There’s also a good chance some of the articles will be heavily debated. There are plenty of persuasive speakers in this town, and you should listen to what they have to say. On occasion, the debate can run a bit long and the masses can get antsy. In those situations, someone can step to the microphone and say “I move the question.” That brings debate to an end and forces a vote.

Use it wisely.

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

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Bill Smilick
13 years ago

To me, as a voter, why do nine people on a committee have to be on stage? It’s intimidating to a lot of people who actually go to town meeting and vote or want to speak. I think the Chair of advisory should be the person delivering the suggestions to the voters and the others should be in front of the stage at a table, if they need to be. When town meeting was at Woodward the advisory sat at a table on the left side of the floor. Left side, get it…boy have times changed! No need for all those people to be on stage; all but one should sit with the rest of us.

Are you kidding me?
13 years ago
Reply to  Bill Smilick

As far as I’m concerned, Advisory can sit on the Moderator’s shoulders, if they’d like. They probably each spend more than 100 hours preparing for the meeting–researching, analyzing, meeting with dept. heads, discussing recommendations, and drafting opinions. Some on the committee spend much, much more time on behalf of the town, and may as well be classified as town auditors. What’s your beef?

13 years ago

I would suggest people who bring or buy snacks get quit ones to open and eat. I would also suggest that people leave newspapers and such at home. I had the bad exsperaince last year of sitting in front of someone who brought potato chips and the news paper. I found it very hard to hear and concentrate on the isues over the crinkling and crunching. I had to move to another seat.

Have fun voting.

carrie alpert
13 years ago

i don’t like the “move the question” which forces a vote–who is one person to get antsy and force a vote? and what is with the snacking? if you seriously need a crudite platter between the hours of 7pm and 11pm then maybe remove yourself and set up your tupperware in the lobby for a bit. Likewise for those of you who bring all your “work” to do —a book or magazine fine but last year someone did their financial planning while at the meeting, no. Save Suze Orman for later.
as far as stepping up to the microphone: please do NOT be intimidated. i am never intimidated but that is me. if you want to speak, do so–this is your town, your money, your kids, your community etc.

Kelly Roney
13 years ago
Reply to  carrie alpert

It does take a vote of the hall to move the question to an immediate vote without further debate. Sometimes it doesn’t look that way because it’s not subject to debate so no one gets to say why they’re against proceeding immediately to a vote, but the voters can reject the motion to vote immediately.

Sometimes, if there’s no one else who visibly wants to speak, the Moderator will ask that the motion to vote immediately be withdrawn, merely to avoid counting both the motion to vote and the main motion.

At least that’s my understanding. I hope Mr. Coombs or Mr. Wilson will correct me if I’m wrong.

Mary Hynes
13 years ago

I’d love to have time at home to do all my personal paperwork, etc. Alas, I commute to Boston every day to a full time job, and, after volunteering for Planning Board and being out a lot for that, I don’t get much chance to sort through things and take care of what I need to.

Spending three or four hours sitting there is a perfect opportunity to get things done I ordinarily can’t, and maybe even catch up on some old newspapers. Of course it would be easier just to stay home & do those tasks there without bothering anyone, but I believe I should attend Town Meeting if at all possible. This year I will try to find a place where I won’t disturb people, tho. And, I must confess, I am one of the “antsy” ones — I may not speak up to move the question, but I get tired of the same comments going back and forth in a debate with no apparent resolution in sight.

carrie alpert
13 years ago

you get an automatic “free pass” for volunteering for Planning Board, i think that the bylaws state you are allowed an extra chair for papers and whatnot and a hotplate for hot appetizers.

mom of two
13 years ago

Tonight was fascinating in a lot of ways but also disappointing in a lot of ways. It was my first town meeting. I liked a lot of aspects of it and I’m glad I went. But what I didn’t like was that when people got up the nerve to get up and ask questions, the questions didn’t get answered.

Al Hamilton and a couple others made the point that we are spending more money on less kids in the schools. But no one answered the question that was asked: WHY? Why are we spending more money? Is it because education is more expensive per student, as I suspect? Are we steadily increasing the quality of our already great education, year after year? If so, then we SHOULD be spending more money on less students. I’m spending more money on lots things I spent less money on a few years ago. In many cases the quality of those things has gone up. And of course there’s inflation, too. Such is life.

I’m just disappointed that this question and others that were asked throughout the night just got passed over and not answered. It is hard to cast an educated vote without all the facts.

southborough mom
13 years ago
Reply to  mom of two

Mom, I thought the same thing! I was also turned off by Mr. Hamilton being allowed to go on and on in lecture mode and others were asked to sit down!!

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