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.
Its usage in the English language can also cause confusion. Town meeting 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." Starting with Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign in 1976, "town meeting" has also been used as a label for any moderated discussion group in which a large audience is invited, as in "John Kerry held a town meeting with voters to discuss issues in the upcoming election." To avoid confusion, this sort of event is often called a "town hall meeting."
Connecticut shares the Town Meeting form of government used by many other New England communities. They differ from Massachusetts and the northern tier of states in being more tightly bound to the published agenda -- in Connecticut, the 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 hasn't 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; and they have been known to take advantage of a pleasant spring evening to adjourn outside to conduct business! 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 the 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 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 clerk, 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.
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.
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. (For example, if X-town and Y-town run a high school together, and the total operating cost of the high school is $4,500,000, and X-town sends 51% of the school's students, X-town would be assessed $2,295,000 and Y-town would be assessed $2,205,000. An issue arises when X-town votes $2,295,000 and Y-town only votes $2,100,000.)
If the issue cannot be resolved, the governing body may call a meeting of all registered voters from all towns involved: 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.
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 meeting voted in favor of the amount originally requested, which required Freetown to give the additional $100,000 it had held back.
The Town Meeting form of government is a mandatory part of being considered a town under state law; cities do not have town meetings. 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 are entitled Town of _____ have a Town Meeting legislative body. (Only communities with a population of at least 12,000 may 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.
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.
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 SB2 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Employers in the state often give their employees time off, or at least give the employees the option of leaving early/coming in late, in order to attend their home town's Town Meeting. Universities often also give their students the day off from class so that they may go to Town Meeting to learn more about local issues and government.