A town meeting is a form of direct democratic rule, used primarily in portions of the United States – principally in New England – since the 17th century, in which most or all the members of a community come together to legislate policy and budgets for local government.
The term has more recently been expanded to cover public meetings that draw people in a geographic area to discuss issues but not vote on any legislative or administrative action. Notably, the term is commonly used by politicians in the United States to describe forums at which voters can ask questions.
In the United States
Town meeting is a form of local government practiced in the U.S. region of New England since colonial times, and in some western states since at least the late 19th century. Typically conducted by New England towns, town meeting can also refer to meetings of other governmental bodies, such as school districts or water districts. While the uses and laws vary from state to state, the general form is for residents of the town or school district to gather once a year and act as a legislative body, voting on operating budgets, laws, and other matters for the community's operation over the following 12 months.
In 1854 Henry David Thoreau said, in a speech entitled "Slavery in Massachusetts":
When, in some obscure country town, the farmers come together to a special town-meeting, to express their opinion on some subject which is vexing the land, that, I think, is the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States.
The painting Freedom of Speech depicts a scene from a town meeting.
Its usage in the English language can also cause confusion, since it is both an event, as in "Freetown had its town meeting last Tuesday", and an entity, as in "Last Tuesday, Town Meeting decided to repave Howland Road."
In recent years, "town meeting" has also been used by political groups and political candidates as a label for moderated discussion group in which a large audience is invited. To avoid confusion, this sort of event is often called a "town hall meeting."
Connecticut town meetings are bound to a published agenda. For example, in Connecticut, a Town Meeting may discuss, but not alter, an article placed before them, nor may they place new items on the agenda. If a Town Meeting rejects a budget, a new Town Meeting must be called to consider the next proposed budget. State Law allows the Board of Selectmen to adopt an estimated tax rate and continue operating based on the previous budget in the event a Town Meeting has not adopted a new budget in time.
They also do not exercise the scope of legislative powers as is typically seen in Massachusetts; for example, while many Massachusetts towns adopt and modify land-use and building zoning regulations at Town Meeting, in Connecticut the Town Meeting would have "adopted zoning" as a concept for the town, however the actual writing and adopting of specific regulations fall to an elected Planning & Zoning Board created by the adoption of zoning.
A moderator is chosen at each meeting. Meetings are typically held in school auditoriums, however they may be moved to larger venues as needed. Town meetings can physically meet in another town if necessary to find a proper space to host the attendance. Votes are taken by voice, and if close by show of hands. Meetings on controversial topics are often adjourned to a referendum conducted by machine vote on a date in the future. Such adjournment may come from the floor of the meeting, or by a petition for a paper or machine ballot filed before the meeting.
In towns with an Open Town Meeting, all registered voters of a town, and all persons owning at least $1,000 of taxable property, are eligible to participate in and vote at Town Meetings, with the exception of the election of officials. Representative Town Meetings used by some larger towns consist solely of a large number of members elected to office. Some towns utilize a so-called Financial Town Meeting, where an Open Town Meeting exists with limited jurisdiction to only vote on financial affairs and the town's legislative powers have been vested in a Town Council.
In Maine, the town meeting system originated during the period when Maine was a district of Massachusetts. Most cities and towns operate under the town meeting form of government or a modified version of it. Maine annual town meetings traditionally are held in March. Special town meetings also may be called from time to time.
The executive agency of town government is an elected, part-time board, known as the Board of Selectmen or Select Board, having three, five or seven members. Between sessions the board of selectmen interprets the policy set at Town Meeting and is assigned numerous duties including: approving all town non-school expenditures, authorizing highway construction and repair, serving as town purchasing agent for non-school items, issuing licenses and overseeing the conduct of all town activities. Often the part-time selectmen also serve as town assessors, overseers of the poor as well as road commissioners. Generally, there are other elected town officers whose duties are specified in law. These may include clerks, assessors, tax collector, treasurer, school committee, constables, and others.
In 1927 the town of Camden adopted a special charter and became the first Maine town to apply the manager concept to the town meeting-selectmen framework. Under this system, the manager is administrative head of town government, responsible to the select board for the administration of all departments under its control. The manager's duties include acting as purchasing agent, seeing that laws and ordinances are enforced, making appointments and removals, and fixing the compensation of appointees. (See also: Council-manager government)
From 1927 to 1939, eleven other Maine towns adopted special act town meeting-selectmen-manager charters similar to the Camden charter. Today, 135 Maine towns have the town meeting-selectmen-manager system, while 209 use the town meeting-selectman system.
I am more and more convinced that, with reference to any public question, it is more important to know what the country thinks of it than what the city thinks. The city does not think much. On any moral question, I would rather have the opinion of Boxboro than of Boston and New York put together. When the former speaks, I feel as if somebody had spoken, as if humanity was yet, and a reasonable being had asserted its rights — as if some unprejudiced men among the country's hills had at length turned their attention to the subject, and by a few sensible words redeemed the reputation of the race. When, in some obscure country town, the farmers come together to a special town-meeting, to express their opinion on some subject which is vexing the land, that, I think, is the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States.
Two forms of town meeting government
Open town meeting
In Massachusetts, towns with fewer than 6,000 residents may only adopt an open town meeting form of government. Massachusetts towns with 6,000 or more residents may optionally adopt a representative town meeting form of government. The Board of Selectmen summons the town meeting into existence by issuing the warrant, which is the list of items—known as articles—to be voted on, with descriptions of each article. The Moderator officiates the meeting by reading each article, explaining it, and making sure the rules of parliamentary procedure are followed, interprets voice votes and counts other votes. The Finance Committee or Ways and Means Committee makes recommendations on articles dealing with money, and often drafts the proposed budget. The Town Clerk serves as the clerk of the meeting by recording its results. Town Counsel makes legal recommendations on all articles of the warrant, to ensure town meeting is acting lawfully. All registered voters are free to attend and vote on any and all articles.
Representative town meeting
Massachusetts Towns having at least 6,000 residents may adopt a Representative Town Meeting system through the normal charter-change process. Representative Town Meetings function largely the same as an Open Town Meeting, except that not all registered voters can vote. The townspeople instead elect Town Meeting Members by precinct to represent them and to vote on the issues for them much like a town council. Depending on population, a town may have anywhere from 50 to 240 Town Meeting Members. Framingham, the largest town in the Commonwealth by population, has 216 representatives in Town Meeting, twelve from each precinct. Saugus, with 50 town meeting members, is the smallest representative town meeting in Massachusetts. In recent years, the number of RTMs in Massachusetts is declining to now just over 35 with the loss of Winthrop and Randolph as the most recent.
Annual town meetings
Annual town meetings are held in the spring, and may also be known as the annual budget meeting. They were required to be held between February 1 and May 31, but Chapter 85 of the Acts of 2008 extended this window of time to June 30. (Town fiscal years start on July 1.) At this meeting, the town takes care of any outstanding housekeeping items it has remaining before the end of the current fiscal year, and prepares to enter the new fiscal year by approving the new fiscal year's budget. It may also vote on non-budgetary issues on the warrant, including the town's general and zoning bylaws.
An article may be placed on the warrant by the Selectmen, sometimes at the request of town departments, or by a petition signed by at least ten registered voters of the town.
Special town meetings
Special town meetings are held whenever necessary, usually to deal with financial or other pertinent issues that develop between Annual Town Meetings. They function the same as an annual town meeting, only the number of signatures required on a petition rises to 100. While the Selectmen generally call such a meeting, voters may call one through petition, and the number of signatures required on a petition to call a Special Town Meeting is 200 or 20% of the registered voters, whichever number is lower. The selectmen have 45 days from the date of receiving such a petition to hold a Special Town Meeting.
Joint/regional town meetings
Joint Town Meetings are an extremely rare form of town meeting. When two or more towns share an operating budget for district activity that includes those towns, for example, a multi-town regional school district, the governing body of that entity will typically issue each town an assessment for its operation. The town then includes its assessment as part of its budget.
If Town Meeting in one town votes to approve its assessment based on the figures provided, and Town Meeting in another town votes a lesser figure than it was assessed, the disagreement becomes problematic. If the issue cannot be resolved by a revised budget submitted to subsequent additional individual town meetings, the governing body has the authority to call a meeting of all registered voters from all towns in the district: a Joint Town Meeting. The action of the Joint Town Meeting is binding for all involved communities. When three or more towns are involved, the name often changes from Joint Town Meeting to Regional Town Meeting.
In 2003, the communities of Freetown and Lakeville, Massachusetts held their annual town meetings and voted on the budget for the Freetown-Lakeville Regional School District as part of those meetings. Freetown voters approved a budget that reduced their contribution by $100,000 from what the Regional School Committee asked for, thus requiring Lakeville to lower their contribution proportionally. Lakeville voters instead approved the amount the Regional School Committee asked for, which would require Freetown to go back and approve the extra $100,000.
When the towns could not agree, the Regional School Committee, as governing body of the Freetown-Lakeville Regional School District, called a joint town meeting of voters from Freetown and Lakeville to agree on a single regional school budget. The joint meeting voted in favor of the amount originally requested, which committed Freetown to appropriate additional funds in the amount of $100,000 for the regional school district's operations.
Cities calling themselves towns
The Massachusetts Constitution (in Amendment LXXXIX, which governs the respective powers of municipalities and the state legislature) makes a distinction between a "city form of government" and a "town form of government". In recent years, a number of communities have chosen to adopt a home-rule charter under this Amendment which specifies a city form of government while retaining the style "Town of X", calling their legislative bodies "Town Council", and so on. (The Constitution does not require any specific nomenclature.) In special legislation, these places are sometimes described as "the city known as the town of X".
The Town Meeting legislative body and form of government is a mandatory part of being a town under state municipal law. Massachusetts cities do not have town meetings, because the legislative body is the elected city council, also sometimes called the board of aldermen or, in the case of cities styled as "Town of _____", the town council. However, as noted, the official style of a city or town is defined in its charter, and there is no legal barrier to cities calling themselves "town" or vice versa. As a result, not all of the municipalities that entitled Town of _____ have a Town Meeting legislative body. (Only communities with a population of at least 12,000 are allowed to adopt a city form of government.)
Common practice distinguishes between a "town meeting" (with an article), which may refer to any such gathering, even if municipal business is not the subject, and "Town Meeting" (never an article), which always refers to the legislative governing body of a town.
In New Hampshire, towns, village districts (which can deal with various government activities but usually concern public water supplies) and school districts have the option of choosing one of two types of annual meeting: Traditional meetings, and ballot-vote meetings that are known informally as "SB 2" or "Senate Bill 2". A variation of SB 2 and representative town meeting are also allowed under state law but as of 2015 are not in use by any community.
Traditional town meetings
Traditional Town Meetings, or Open Meetings, are held annually on the second Tuesday of March to choose town officers and the transaction of all other town business. Town selectmen are also permitted to call special town meetings as warranted, although these must be approved by a judge if they involve budgetary expenditures or changes. Town meetings are prohibited, by state law, from being held on the biennial election day, which is typically held in November to elect county, state and national officials.
A town moderator is allowed under state law to adjourn a meeting that has run for a very long period and reconvene it at a later date, usually one week from the date of the meeting, and usually in the same location, in order to finish the town's business.
Official ballot referendums (SB 2)
The SB 2 form of government was instituted by the state legislature in 1995 because of concerns that modern lifestyles had made it difficult for people to attend traditional town meetings. Residents vote in an SB 2 election at a polling place throughout the day. They may also vote by absentee ballot. Municipalities that have adopted the SB 2 form of government may switch back to the traditional town meeting form by a 3/5 majority vote.
Under SB 2, a first session, called a "Deliberative Session", is held about a month prior to the town election. This session is similar in many ways to the traditional town meeting. However, unlike the town meeting, while the wording and dollar amounts of proposed ballot measures may be amended, no actual voting on the merits of the proposals takes place. The second session, held on a set election day, is when issues such as the town's budget and other measures, known as warrant articles, are voted upon. When adopting SB 2, towns or school districts may hold elections on the second Tuesday in March, the second Tuesday in April, or the second Tuesday in May. The election dates may be changed by majority vote. If a vote is taken to approve the change of the local elections, the date becomes effective the following year.
In 2002, according to the University of New Hampshire Center for Public Policy studies, 171 towns in New Hampshire had traditional town meeting, while 48 had SB 2. Another 15 municipalities, most of them incorporated cities, had no annual meeting. The study found that 102 school districts had traditional town meeting, 64 had SB 2 meeting and 10 had no annual meeting.
Because traditional-meeting communities tend to be smaller, only one-third of the state's population was governed by traditional town meetings in 2002, and only 22 percent by traditional school-district meetings.
Official ballot town council
The Official Ballot Town Council is a variant form of the Town Council, in which certain items are to be placed on the ballot to be voted on by the registered voters. This process mimics the SB 2 process, except that the Town Council makes the determination of what items will go on the ballot.
Budgetary town meeting
The Budgetary Town Meeting is a variation of the Open Meeting, but only the annual town operating budget as presented by the governing body can be voted on by the registered voters. When a town charter provides for a Budgetary Town Meeting also must establish the procedures for the transfer of funds among various departments, funds, accounts and agencies as may be necessary during the year.
Representative town meeting
State law also allows for a Representative Town Meeting, similar to that of a Town Council, although as of 2006 the practice is not used by a town or school district in New Hampshire. Voters elect a small number of residents to act as the legislative body instead of them, however no town in the state has done so. Representative Town Meetings follow the same procedure and address the same issues as traditional town meetings, except they cannot consider matters which state law or the charter states must be placed on the official ballot of the town.
Moderators are elected to two-year terms on even years in towns and are elected in city wards at every other city election. The moderator's duties include presiding over town meetings, regulating the business thereof, deciding questions of order, making public declarations of each vote passed, and prescribing rules of proceeding which may be altered by the town as need.
The moderator also has the authority to postpone and reschedule the deliberative session or voting day of the meeting to another reasonable date, place, and time certain in the case of a weather emergency in which the moderator reasonably believes the roads to be hazardous or unsafe.
Town meetings were the rule in New York from the colonial period into the 20th century. They were typically held between February 1 and May 1 of each year primarily for the election of town officials but were also empowered to set "rules for fences and for impounding animals," supporting the poor, raising taxes, and to "determine any other question lawfully submitted to them". In the late 1890s the state legislature shifted the meetings - by this time no more than town elections—to biennial to conform to the pattern of federal, state, and municipal elections in the state's cities. It also permitted, and later directed, town meetings to be held in November. That process was not complete until the 1920s. Laws adopted in 1932 for the first time refer to "Biennial town elections", stating that these were "a substitute for a town meeting...and a reference in any law to a town meeting or special town meeting shall be construed as reference to a town election". The state's school districts (independent units with taxing powers) voted on budgets and capital levies and elected school board members in town-meeting style until the late 1950s.
Due to a change in the state's constitution, Rhode Island municipalities have a greater degree of home rule compared to the other New England states. Like Connecticut, a few towns utilize a so-called Financial Town Meeting, where an Open Town Meeting exists with limited jurisdiction to only vote on financial affairs and the town's legislative powers have been vested in a Town Council. The direct democracy tradition is now uncommon in Rhode Island.
Town Meeting Day (the first Tuesday in March) is a state holiday. Most organized towns operate under the general statutes requiring an annual town meeting on that day or, optionally, on preceding days if the voters so choose. The purpose of town meeting is to elect municipal officers, approve annual budgets and conduct any other business. All cities and some towns in Vermont operate under charters instead of general legislation (see special legislation). The cities and chartered towns, except for South Burlington, are required by the terms of their charters to hold an annual town meeting, on Town Meeting Day. Many towns vote on matters of substance (e.g., budgets, elected officials, etc.) by secret ballot (also known as Australian ballot). However, there is no state law that requires towns to vote by Australian ballot; several towns still conduct all business "from the floor".
Cities and towns are governed by either a city council or a selectboard. They are fully empowered to act on most issues and are generally referred to as the municipality's legislative body. But all town budgets (and those of other independent taxing authorities) must be approved by plebiscite; explaining the local government's budget request to the voters is the principal business of Town Meeting. Voters at Town Meeting may also vote on non-binding resolutions, and may place items on the ballot for the following year's meeting.
There is no general requirement for chartered municipalities to observe town meeting or to put their budgets to plebiscite. When the Town of South Burlington was re-chartered as the City of South Burlington in 1971, the new charter provided for city elections in April and required only budget increases of 10% or more per annum to be placed before voters. No other municipality has been granted such a charter by the legislature, and there is strong sentiment against making future exceptions.
According to the Vermont Secretary of State's Citizen's Guide to Town Meeting, Vermont gives state employees the day off on town meeting day. Vermont "law also gives a private employee the right to take unpaid leave from work to attend his or her annual town meeting, subject to the essential operation of the business or government. An employee must give the employer at least seven days notice if he or she wants to take advantage of this right to attend town meeting. Students who are over 18 also have the right to attend town meeting" and not be declared truant.
Moderators are elected to one-year terms in towns. The moderator's duties include reviewing the "warning" (published agenda) for the town meeting, presiding over town meetings, deciding questions of order, making public declarations of each vote passed, and prescribing rules of proceeding.
Towns in several western states and counties also practice town meeting, though generally with more limited powers. Michigan was the first western state to adopt the town meeting system, but it was initially very restricted in its function.
The best-known example of the town meeting system of government was to be found in the Basque Country of northern Spain in the Middle Ages. Known as the anteiglesia (literally "in front of the church" from the Latin ante - and not anti) all the residents of a town would meet outside the door of the largest church and vote on local matters. They would also elect a sindico to represent them in the regional assembly. The village or town was divided into cofradías, which dealt with day-to-day administration in each of the town's parishes.
Town meetings are the usual legislative body of the smaller municipalities of Switzerland, that is of approximately 90% of all Swiss municipalities. The meetings are usually held twice a year. They must not be confused with the Landsgemeinde, the meeting that functions as legislative body in certain cantons of Switzerland.
Within religious communities
The Bahá'í Faith has a Nineteen Day Feast which encourages all members of the geographic community in good standing to attend for prayers, administrative discussion, and socializing. This meeting is one component of the Bahá'í Administrative Order (which is held up as a model for secular society to consider implementing some of its features), and the meeting is considered by Bahá'ís to be an example of grass-roots democracy.
- Sullivan, James William (1893). Direct Legislation Through the Initiative and Referendum. True Nationalist Publishing Company.
- Thoreau, Henry David. "Slavery in Massachusetts". Retrieved 2011-05-20.
- Thoreau, Henry David (July 4, 1854). "Slavery in Massachusetts". Retrieved October 29, 2008.
- See amendment LXXXIX of the Massachusetts Constitution.
- Barnes, Jennette (2003-08-08). "Lakeville demands more Freetown funding". The Standard-Times. Retrieved July 16, 2012.
- Law establishing village districts
- Forms of Town Government - NH.gov
- Chapter 481, Laws of 1897
- McKinney's Consolidated Laws of New York State Annotated (Chapter 634, Laws of 1932); Jewett's Manual for Election Officers and Voters in the State of New York (1893-1918)
- Markowitz, Deborah (July 2008). "A Citizen's Guide to Vermont Town Meeting". Retrieved September 4, 2009.
- 21 V.S.A.§472b
- Vermont Moderator statutes accessed February 9, 2008
- Niles, Sanford (1897). "The Town". History and Civil Government of Minnesota. Werner School Book Company. pp. 107–115.
- "Town Meetings". Minnesota Association of Townships. Retrieved 19 June 2015.
- Bryan, Frank M., Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How it Works, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
- Fiske, John (1904). Civil Government in the United States: Considered with Some Reference to Its Origins. Houghton, Mifflin Company.
- Mansbridge, Jane, Beyond Adversary Democracy, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980, provides an in-depth account of the dynamics in one Vermont town of about 500 people.
- Porter, Kirk Harold (1922). County and Township Government in the United States. Macmillan.
- Robinson, Donald. Town Meeting: Practicing Democracy in Rural New England (University of Massachusetts Press; 2011) 344 pages; analyzes the rocky but productive process of town-meeting democracy in Ashfield, Mass., a community of just under 2,000 in the Berkshires.
- Zuckerman, Michael. "The Social Context of Democracy in Massachusetts," William and Mary Quarterly (1968) 25:523-544 in JSTOR
- Citizen's Guide to Town Meetings prepared by William Francis Galvin, Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth.
- New Hampshire