Town Meeting is quintessential New England: It’s the “legislative branch of town government, used to enact local laws, pass budgets and authorize spending of town money,” per the town’s website. This process is literally older than the United States itself — Lexington’s Town Meeting has been happening since 1746.
- Who votes in Town Meeting? Many readers are themselves Town Meeting Members, and will know how this all works — but for those of you who aren’t and don’t, Lexington has a Representative Town Meeting, which differs from an Open Town Meeting in that only elected Town Meeting Members vote on articles (as opposed to any Lexingtonian). There are 21 citizens from each of nine precincts, as well as eight members-at-large, including all five Select Board Members, State Representative Michelle Ciccolo, State Senator Michael Barrett, and current Town Meeting Moderator Deborah Brown. (So Town Meeting comprises about 200 people representing all the residents in town.) When a Town Meeting Member resigns or moves, the candidate in the precinct with the next-highest vote gets the open seat; when there isn’t a runner-up, the precinct caucuses to elect someone else.
- The ability to run for 2022 Town Meeting next year will open in December of 2021, Select Board Chair Jill Hai told LexObserver. Recently, there’s been a lot of turnover — and in the past few years, the diversity of Town Meeting has jumped, which is “terrific,” she noted. Still, “We have a long way to go before it fully looks like our community. But we’re making progress.”
- How does Town Meeting work? The Annual Town Meeting occurs each spring. Sometimes, another Town Meeting is scheduled for the fall when urgent articles need to be addressed before the next Annual Town Meeting. This is why it’s called a “Special” Town Meeting. All of the articles to be discussed at Town Meeting are listed on the warrant, a document which is sent out to all Lexington residents; these are the set of proposals Town Meeting Members will debate, potentially amend, and vote on. In fall of 2021, there are 17 articles in total on the warrant (far fewer than the ~40 or so that can be typical during the Annual Town Meeting).
- Is there a ~most important article~? Not according to Hai — she stressed that “It’s all important…how we spend our money, how we allocate our resources, what our capital plans are…it goes to our day-to-day life. It’s the exciting thing about municipal government,” which, at the end of the day, can “make [the] biggest changes in everyone’s life — much more so than the state or federal government.”
- That said, “every year, there are a couple of articles that get a lot of airtime, and for one reason, or one method or another, make their way around the community at a higher rate than others,” Hai added. While this is exciting, “because then you really know how people feel and what they want [for that article]…then there are other things where we kind of scratch our heads and can’t figure out what the difference was; why didn’t people get the news?”
- Some of the articles appear on the Consent Agenda as well as the Warrant. What’s the Consent Agenda? If you attend other public meetings in town, you’re probably familiar with the consent agenda; these are articles that are proposed to just be addressed by a single vote, instead of with a protracted process of discussion, either because they’re being postponed, or not expected to be controversial or generate much debate. The consent agenda can save time, but members still have the chance to ask questions about its articles. Additionally, if 10 or more Town Meeting Members want to have an independent vote, they can request that an item be removed from the consent agenda.
- I’m not a Town Meeting Member. Does Town Meeting really matter to me? Absolutely, because if you pay attention, and share your thoughts with your representatives, town government — not just Town Meeting, but other boards and committees — can do its job and serve you better, Hai said. “The more people are informed and the more questions that they ask or the more opinions that they share with their elected representatives, the better the representatives can represent them,” she said. “It’s really hard to know necessarily what everybody you’re elected to represent wants, thinks, needs, feels, so the more that residents are informed and reach out, the better off everyone is, because we all make more informed decisions.”
- Turnout from non-Town Meeting Members tends to vary from year to year, she added. “Obviously, frankly, more is always better; the more people who are engaging, the better off we all are.” While currently, “engagement is good — we’re certainly getting a lot of participation on a couple of different things for this time —” this engagement does not extend to every article, Hai reiterated.
- It can actually be easier to be engaged and informed for a Special Town Meeting, since there are fewer articles; at the Annual Town Meeting in the spring, “it’s harder to keep track of all of them if you aren’t already engaged in some way with what’s going on in government,” she said. She recommended Citizens’ Academy, a free ten-week program which begins each year in late August or early September, as an excellent way to learn how municipal government works on committee and professional levels, and how to get involved — as well as a way to simply learn and understand, as a resident, how town taxes are spent.
- How long does it last, and how do you tell what they will talk about each day? The order of listed warrant articles is NOT the order in which articles are discussed. In the warrant, articles are “clumped” by category, Hai said; zoning articles together, financial articles together, sections on capital, sections on citizen articles, etc. The order of article discussion, on the other hand, depends on logistical factors such as when presenters are available, as well as ensuring a “date certain” that is set in stone for articles when public interest is expected to be high — as the name suggests, a date certain does not change even if Town Meeting is ahead of or behind schedule, Hai explained.
- Overflow can happen when debate stretches on, and when there are many proposed amendments from the floor, Hai said; Town Meeting uses Robert’s Rules, which require 30 minutes of debate for an amendment, then a return to open debate, etc. — so things can take a while.
- If I miss something or can’t make it, what options do I have to find out what happened? LexMedia records Town Meeting and posts it to their website and YouTube channel, and LexObserver attends each meeting and attempts to make sense of it all in the newsletter each week that meetings take place.
- Town Meeting is “one of those great things about living in Lexington…it doesn’t get any more Americana than the opening of Town Meeting,” Hai said, between the Lexington Minutemen marching in with their dress uniforms, flags and muskets, and the William Diamond Fife and Drum Corps playing the national anthem. “It’s particularly nice when we can do it in person, and the Minutemen really parade through, and the Fife Drum Corps parade through, and we all get to stand…it’s that wow factor. So I’m hoping we can all be together in person for the spring; I’m hoping this is our last virtual Town Meeting. But I just encourage everyone to participate, or to at least tune in and listen and read and have your voice heard.”
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