Town Meeting Update: Citizen Petitions due by February 23

The state approved new bylaws impacting the upcoming Town Meeting. One increases the notice the Town is given for Warrant Articles submitted by voters.

At the Special Town Meeting last fall, voters passed two new bylaws impacting future Town Meetings. One of those bylaws sets a deadline for Citizen Petition Articles to be added to the Warrant. The second will hopefully help make Town Meetings run quicker.

Both were recently ratified by the Attorney General’s office — in time to impact the Annual Town Meeting scheduled to open 1:00 pm on Saturday, March 25th. That means, this year’s ATM Petition Articles must be submitted to the Town Clerk by 5:00 pm on Thursday, February 23rd.

At the October 13th Special Town Meeting, Select Board Member Andrew Dennington made the case for creating a deadline of 30 calendar days prior to Town Meetings for petition Articles

In the past, the Select Board had believed it controlled the ability to allow Articles to be added to the Warrant through their votes to open and close it in advance of Town Meetings. Earlier this year, the Board learned from Town Counsel that wasn’t the case.

Apparently, unless Town Meeting specifies otherwise, voters are actually entitled to submit Citizen Petition Articles up until the legal notice for posting the Warrant. Voter signatures must be certified for a petition to be added to the Warrant but a deadline for those submissions wasn’t outlined. That allowed for petitions to be submitted as late as 7 days before an Annual Town Meeting, with only 10 verified registered voter signatures required and 14 days for Special Town Meeting with 100 signatures.

 In the spring, Select Board members fretted about hypothetical scenarios. This past fall, they were frustrated by an actual case – Debbie DeMuria’s submission of a petition Article to restrict the flying of flags in the Old Burial Ground three weeks prior to the Town Meeting.

Dennington argued that the Town should have more notice, to allow officials to hold hearings and consider public feedback prior to Town Meetings. DeMuria countered that if petitioners can’t make the deadline, they could instead compel the Town to hold an additional Special Town Meeting.* Former Advisory member John Butler pointed out that petitions would need to specify that a special meeting was being called.

Former Advisory member Al Hamilton noted that the Town officials frequently modify their Articles up to the last minute, sometimes with modifications proposed even after the Warrant is closed. He opined that “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander”.

Patricia Burns Fiore, who sponsored multiple Citizen Articles over the past few years, echoed that voters should have the same leeway as Town officials. She asked if it was possible to amend the Article to set the deadline at when the Warrant was closed. There was some discussion from commenters and officials about whether that would be an improvement.

Dennington stated that Town Counsel had advised that relying on the Select Board’s vote for opening and closing the Warrant could cause problematic ambiguity. By setting a firm deadline, it gives clearer notice to voters. As someone who had also sponsored past petition Articles, Butler argued in favor of the deadline’s clarity.

As for the different standard for Town officials, Select Board Chair Kathy Cook highlighted that Town’s Articles do generally provide more notice. The late changes are usually “tweaks” based on officials and the public having a longer time to consider and discuss proposed Articles.

The hall voted in favor of the increased notice. (The number of signatures required by state law remains unchanged.)

Also passed at the meeting, and ratified by the AG, was a bylaw granting the Moderator increased flexibility for determining voting methods. The new bylaw adds the option of using of handheld devices for voting. The use of the devices is intended to reduce time wasted at Town Meetings by time consuming manual vote counts.

Town Clerk Jim Hegarty and Moderator Paul Cimino explained that Cimino only intends to use them if he can’t clearly determine the results by a show of hands. (Though, as written, the bylaw does allow future Moderators the ability to skip that step.) Hegarty already arranged for the Town to rent devices to use at the March meeting. (The $5K payment was approved by the Select Board as an ARPA expense.) If the Town is satisfied with the devices, the rental will serve as a down payment for purchasing them.

You can see both approved bylaws, shared by Hegarty, here.

*If a Citizen’s Petition calls for it, the Select Board must hold a Town Meeting within 45 days of it being submitted with the required signatures.

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