A Short Guide to Town Meeting (Part I)


Manchester’s Annual Town Meeting will take place this year on Monday, April 3 at 6:30 p.m. at Manchester Memorial School in the gymnasium.  Every year, hundreds of Manchester residents make time to attend town meeting, but many do not.  Last fall, more than 570 voters came to the special town meeting.  If you have never been to town meeting, please consider coming.  Citizen participation makes town government work. This guide briefly explains what town meeting does and how it functions. 

What is Town Meeting?

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 Select Board, on the other hand, heads 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 town meeting’s essential functions is to approve Manchester’s budget and its share of costs for the Manchester Essex Regional School District.  Although town meeting adopts 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%, with an allowance for growth.  That can only be done at a town election called by the Selectmen.

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 Select Board have the authority to postpone it.  The Select Board may call “special” town meetings at any time, with prescribed notice to the voters.  The Select Board also set the warrant, a compilation of all the “articles” or subjects to be addressed at the meeting.  Since the 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 Select Board writes 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 Select Board 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 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 of a financial nature and to publish a report, made available to all residents, that includes the warrant articles and its recommendations.  The Finance Committee report also contains the recommendations of the Select Board and the Planning Board.  This makes it the best guide for voters in preparing for town meeting and in following the meeting as it unfolds.  The 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-law, and on the town website; copies are available at the Select Board’s office.

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