I Can’t Talk Right Now. I’m “In Town Meeting.”

Any local government manager in New England will understand immediately when you have to decline a commitment because you are “in town meeting.” Being in town meeting simply means that your community’s town meeting is on-going and you have no bandwidth for anything else. Some towns finish their town meetings in a single night or on a Saturday. Many run two or three weeks, meeting two or three times per week until the end. There are even some communities that regularly run 10 nights or more.

Without question, town meeting is what I get asked about the most when I meet with colleagues from other parts of the country. “Is that really a thing?” Yes, town meeting is a real form of government. In my town, town meeting members gather the first Monday in May and then every Wednesday and Monday until we are done. They meet again in the fall – in October or November – usually for one night to tie up loose ends. That’s it. All the zoning. All the appropriations. All the by-law changes. The process is slow and deliberate, and while the pace can be excruciating, the opportunity for rushed decision-making is practically non-existent.

Local patriot Sam Adams is referred to as the “Man of Town Meeting.” His example in town meeting helped fuel the revolutionary spirit in Boston: “It does not take a majority to prevail… but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brush fires of freedom in the minds of men.” Managers from all forms of local government, however, will recognize the corollary. One of the “local government miseries” (more on this in a later post) is that it takes a very large majority to get any initiative off the ground, and about a handful of determined naysayers to kill it.

Town Meeting comes in two forms – Open and Representative. In our state, there are 59 communities that have a city form of government, either council-manager or council-mayor. There are 259 open town meetings, and 33 representative town meetings. Representative, of course, means just what it says. Voters of the Town pick citizens to represent them by ballot. There are a few other citizens who serve, such as elected board members, the Town Moderator, and the Town Clerk. The Moderator is the persons who runs the meeting.

Town meeting is a serious business, and is considered by many to be the purest form of government. Retaining town meeting as a legislative branch connects us to our history. It is, however, exhausting for those charged with making sure everything runs smoothly – from arranging the hall, making sure there are high school students to run the microphones, to creating the PowerPoint slides, to answering questions. Simply attending the many nights while keeping up with the daily workload is draining.

Several years ago I participated in a dancing with the stars fundraiser to support the 300th anniversary of our town. (Please do not google this video). I was introduced as a person who learned to dance by answering questions at town meeting. How true this is! No matter how much you prepare, you will be stumped. It’s guaranteed. The answer to “How many hydrants are there, and how many get knocked over every year?” was not in my five inch reference binder. Technology is a great servant, however, and by the time I made it to the podium my colleague had texted me the answer.

There is a lighter side of town meeting. Department managers are typically “encouraged” to attend town meeting, and the seating arrangement is a serious business. New managers are carefully instructed to leave the required seat between each individual. Managers can be seen playing town meeting bingo (for terms like “call the question” or “is this mic working?”).

In preparing for my first town meeting, I asked my predecessor and mentor for advice. “Be sure you can answer the first question on the budget, because if you can’t, town meeting will smell blood and go after you.” This was sage advice and I have taken it seriously every year since. He also reminded me that I will be on camera every minute. Now that’s an important tip.

I have only worked in a town with a representative town meeting – those of you who have toiled in open town meeting, please share your best stories!

Let’s Practice.

3 thoughts on “I Can’t Talk Right Now. I’m “In Town Meeting.”

  1. Town Meeting used to be my favorite day [next to St Patricks Day #duh] until last year. I had to upload all the article amendments from my laptop on the floor in front of the main stage on the spot. During a short spell, I decided to have some refreshment and opened my seltzer which promptly exploded in front of 200+ residents looking on with glee!

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  2. Hi Kate,

    The first question on the budget is very true. Looking like you know what you are doing provides some confidence to the audience members who are willing to accept what you are saying.

    Of course, there’s the “Stump the Chump” crowd (and we know who the Chump is).

    We play bingo at Town Meeting using the warrant article numbers because after the operating budget is done, everything else is done by lottery (winner usually gets cookies baked by me). There’s an alleged conspiracy theory that at a recent town meeting, the Town Clerk, who draws the numbers, deliberately left an article on marijuana zoning for last in order to maintain a quorum.

    I sit in the “Strangers Gallery” (got the name from the British Parliament) as I’m not a resident (per the Town’s by-law, other non-resident department heads and myself are allowed to speak without special permission).

    We’ve been fairly lucky in Halifax with fewer multi-night meetings as the years have gone by. The strain on nights beyond the first night is less simply because my prep work is done (at least I hope it is). A really good meeting is one for which I don’t have to be up at the microphone. Unfortunately, I hold too much of the institutional memory after 23 years here in Halifax so that’s rare.

    Back in college/graduate school, finals and graduations always occurred near by birthday. The same has been true with Town Meetings in Brimfield and Holland, Rowley, and now Halifax. I’ll celebrate #60 next year at the first night of the Annual Town Meeting. The real present will be when it’s done.

    Best wishes,

    Charlie

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  3. We had our Town Meeting in North Andover on May 14. It is an Open Town Meeting, so any citizen who is a registered voter may attend and vote. The Town Budget is over $100 million dollars. The budget passed unanimously with no questions or comments from the citizens. We completed all articles in 2 1/2 hours. I feel the efficiency was due to an excellent Moderator and transparency through the budget process and with the presentations at Town Meeting. When I speak to colleagues from other parts of the country, they are both fascinated and horrified at Open Town Meeting. “What do you mean any voter can speak and ask questions?” We all have that citizen who is anti-government and tries to “Stump the Chump” as Charlie put it, which is the down-side to Town Meeting. But looking forward, I am excited to see how the concept of Town Meeting evolves as technology allows for remote participation and the next generation will influence whether or not people continue to come out to a town auditorium on a weeknight (or several) or give up a Saturday, versus remote participation from home.
    Dee

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