Thursday, January 28, 2016

Town Meetings, Massachusetts

MASSACHUSETTS - Why the state requires town meeting as a form of local government.

This year's annual town meeting will be Maynard's 145th. That's nothing. Pelham has been having town meetings in the same building since 1743. Stow started the practice in 1683. Sudbury has copies of town meeting records dating back to 1640. Dorchester, with claims to be the oldest, started in 1633. That first meeting was held to decide on a form of self-government, which turned out to be, well, you know, town meeting.

Blame the Puritans. Unlike Virginia, this was not initially a Crown colony. (It became one in 1692.) Puritan settlers were adamantly against England's established church - meaning a church recognized by law as the official church of a nation. Instead, each new community built its own meeting house, which was also the place of worship. Community rule was by direct democracy, with voting rights going to land-owning men who were members of the church. These men were referred to as 'freemen.' Hired help and indentured servants did not have voting rights (nor women, nor slaves). 

Vote-collecting baskets readied for a Maynard town meeting
The process of conducting town meetings became codified in 1715, when the Great and General Court of the British Crown Colony of Massachusetts passed Article 244 “...for the better regulating of town meetings, because of the disorderly Carriage of some Persons in the Meetings, and because the Affairs and Business thereof is very much retarded and obstructed.”  Ha!  Key provisions, in place to this day, were the establishment of a Moderator and also limiting town meeting actions to decisions on articles previously published in a warrant.

Town meetings became cumbersome as towns increased in population. Attendees had a hard time hearing speakers from the podium or questions from the floor (remember, no microphones). Rules were amended to allow towns an option to establish districts, with each district electing a representative. These representatives would then be the only ones with voting power at town meetings. A town can elect as few as 45 or as many as 240 representatives. The state has an online brochure explaining all the complexities of the town meeting process: 

 www.sec.state.ma.us/cis/cispdf/Guide_to_Town_Meetings.pdf.

Present day, Massachusetts law requires that towns with a population under 6,000 must use open town meeting. Up to 12,000 must use either open or representative town meeting. Above 12,000, communities can chose open or representative town meeting, or else declare themselves a city and elect a mayor instead. Massachusetts is divided into 351 communities. Of those, 55 are designated cities. That list includes large cities such as Boston and Worcester, and also small ones such as North Adams, population 14,000. Representative town meetings are held in 36 towns, including Framingham (pop 68,000). The remaining 260 communities are governed by open town meeting. Locally, Stow, Acton, Concord, Sudbury and Maynard use open town meeting. A complete list is at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_municipalities_in_Massachusetts.

Click on photos to enlarge
Each town adds its own nuances to town meeting rules. Stow does not require a minimum number of people to be a quorum, whereas Maynard requires 75 (lowered in 2009 from 100). Maynard allows up to 30 minutes for a voted article to be brought back to the floor for reconsideration, while Stow allows two hours. In both towns, any voter with a question must state their name and address. People used to add how long they or their families had lived in the town, but that practice has fallen into disuse.

Maynard officially became a town on April 19, 1871 and had its first town meeting eight days later, selecting men to be Selectmen, Treasurer (Lorenzo Maynard), a school committee and constables, also now obsolete posts, such as fence viewers and field drivers. The former were paid to identify fences that were not tall and strong enough to contain horses, cattle, sheep and pigs. The latter were charged with rounding up farm animals that got loose, to be returned to owners only after a fine was paid. Caught animals were held in a pound until reclaimed.

One problem apparent across all communities in the state is declining attendance at town meetings. "All Those in Favor," a book by Susan Clark and Frank Bryan, addresses the issue head on. Their data shows that on average, just 11 percent of registered voters attend open town meeting. Factors include the fact that people often do not have long-term roots in the towns of their current residence  

Not in the newspaper article:

For Maynard, population estimated at 10,100 of which approximately 8,100 are older than the voting age of 18, and roughly 75% of those are registered voters. Rule of thumb is that ~90% of registered voters will vote in a Presidents' year election, fewer in non-Presidential years and fewer still in local elections. The Presidential vote total for Maynard in November 2012 (Obama versus Romney) was 5,788.  In contrast, the Town of Maynard annual election, held every May, draws 1700-1900 voters. Someone running for Selectman can win a seat with 300-400 votes. 

Maynard's annual town meetings, also held every May, draw 600-1000 voters. Special town meetings draw only 100-150 unless there are controversial articles. For example, May 19, 2013 was the Special Town Meeting to consider rezoning of 129 Parker Street (the old Digital property) for stores and a residences. A 2/3 majority was needed to approve the Article, which was recommended by the Selectmen and the Finance Committee. Voters numbered 989, divided 264 YES and 725 NO. A revised (much smaller) plan was approved at Special Town Meeting on January 11, 2016. 

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