This is the first of two articles providing a background on Manchester’s Town Meeting, which will take place this year on Monday, June 21 at 6:30 p.m. on Hyland Field at the Manchester Essex Middle High School. The rain date is June 23. Every year, hundreds of Manchester residents make time to attend the town meeting, but many do not. If you have never been to the town meeting, please consider coming. Citizen participation makes town government work.
This article describes the role of the town meeting and the process that leads up to it; the second will explain the basics of how the meeting functions. The complete guide is posted on the moderator’s page on the town’s website, http://www.manchester.ma.us/400/Town-Moderator, any residents having queries are welcome to call 978-526-4229 or send an e-mail to email@example.com.
The town meeting is Manchester’s legislature. The meeting sets the town’s budget, appropriates funds and enacts the town’s governing laws – called By-laws. The Selectmen, on the other hand, head the town’s executive arm. Manchester has an “open” town meeting, which means that every registered voter is entitled to participate in the debate and cast his or her vote. Some larger towns have “representative” town meetings: there, every voter can speak, but only elected town meeting members can vote.
One of the town meeting’s essential functions is to approve Manchester’s budget and its share of costs for the Manchester Essex Regional School District. Although the town meeting approves the budget, it does not have the authority to approve an override of Proposition 2 ½, the state law limiting spending to an annual increase of 2.5 percent, with an allowance for growth. That can only be done at a town election called by the Selectmen.
The town meeting itself is governed by several provisions of state law, a section of Manchester’s By-laws, and by traditional practices applied over many years, including those set out in a guidebook for moderators called Town Meeting Time. Our By-law provides that the “annual” town meeting must take place on the first Monday in April each year, but under state law, the Selectmen have the authority to postpone it as they have done this year. The Selectmen may call “special” town meetings at any time, with prescribed notice to the voters. The Selectmen also set the warrant, a compilation of all the “articles” or subjects to be addressed at the meeting. Since publication of the warrant gives legal notice to the voters of the subjects to be discussed, no action may be taken at the meeting that is not covered by a warrant article.
While the Selectmen write most of the warrant articles with assistance from the administrator and town counsel, citizens may also submit articles for consideration. For the annual meeting, the Selectmen must include citizen-sponsored articles stated in a petition signed by at least 10 voters. For special meetings, however, citizen petitions require 100 signatures for the article to be included. Citizens seeking to sponsor a warrant article often consult with the moderator or town administrator to make sure it’s in the proper form.
The Finance Committee also plays a critical role in preparation for the town meeting. It meets frequently with town departments during the months before April to assist in developing budgets. It is required by Manchester’s By-law to make recommendations to the meeting on all warrant articles that have financial implications, and to publish a report, made available to all residents, that includes the warrant articles and its recommendations. In recent years, the Finance Committee report has also contained the recommendations of the Board of Selectmen and the Planning Board. This makes it the best guide for voters in preparing for town meetings and in following the meeting as it unfolds. This pamphlet is distributed to all Manchester households a few days before Town Meeting. Prior to that, the warrant is posted at Town Hall, at other locations required under the By-laws, and on the Town website; copies are available at the Selectmen’s office.
The second installment of these articles will offer a roadmap to the town meeting itself – from the first rap of the gavel through adjournment. Please set aside the date and join this earliest creation of American democracy.