A Short Guide to Town Meeting (Part Two)


Manchester's Annual Town Meeting will take place this year on Monday, April 25 at 7 p.m. at Manchester Memorial School in the gymnasium.  The Selectmen also plan to call a Special Town Meeting for June 11 at 1 p.m., with a rain date of June 14 at 6 p.m. in case health concerns require that it be held outdoors. 

The first installment, which appeared in last week’s Cricket, described the function of town meeting and the roles of the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee in preparing for it.  This one focuses on how town meeting works.  The complete guide is posted on the moderator’s page on the Town’s website, http://www.manchester.ma.us/400/Town-Moderator, and residents with questions are welcome to call 978-526-4229 or send an e-mail to awilson@spyrockhill.net.

The moderator presides over the meeting, manages the discussion of warrant articles, rules on all procedural issues, and is required by state law to declare the result of votes.  The moderator’s ruling on matters of procedure is final – under the relevant statute, there is no appeal.  Moderating therefore requires scrupulous fairness to the participants and giving all those who wish to speak an opportunity to do so, while simultaneously keeping the proceeding moving as efficiently as reasonably possible.

Town boards and committees, sponsors of warrant articles and other citizens may prepare handouts for the meeting to inform the voters about issues relevant to the warrant.  Those wishing to do so should obtain permission before the day of the meeting from the moderator or town clerk.  The purpose is not to review the content of documents but to make sure there are enough copies and that they are placed in the lobby and not distributed during the meeting itself, which could be distracting.  It is preferable for a handout to identify its authors or, if prepared on behalf of a private organization, the group’s principal officers:  signed papers have more credibility than anonymous ones.

The meeting takes up the articles in order as they appear in the warrant, unless the meeting decides by majority vote to alter the sequence.  Articles are not self-starting, however, but require a motion and a second.  The article may be fairly general, but the motion must propose specific action and may differ from the article.  It must be close enough, however, that a voter who read the article would not be surprised by the action voted under it.  For example, if the article proposed to buy one police car for $25,000, a motion to buy five cars for $125,000 would be out of order.  The question is whether the motion is “within the scope of the warrant,” and one of the moderator’s tasks is to decide whether each motion passes this test.

Under our By-laws, the moderator can require that motions be made in writing, and we follow that practice when circumstances warrant.  Written motions should be submitted in documentary and electronic form to the moderator and to the town clerk prior to the meeting if possible.

Any registered voter may speak at town meeting, provided he or she is first recognized by the moderator, and may offer a motion under an article.  Non-residents, including non-resident town employees, may also attend the meeting with the moderator’s permission.  Once a motion is made and seconded, another voter may move to amend the motion, provided the proffered amendment is also within the scope of the article.  Our rules provide that only one “main motion” and no more than two amendments may be before the meeting at the same time.  The purpose of this rule is to avoid the confusion that might result from too many proposals pending simultaneously.  The meeting may close debate by a two-thirds vote – the process to do so is called the “motion for the previous question.” 

The last step in the process is voting.  Manchester’s town meeting now votes electronically, using handsets similar to a TV remote.  Electronic voting means that every vote is a secret ballot, affording privacy that many residents find desirable.  An explanation of how to use the handsets is also on the moderator’s page on the town website, http://www.manchester.ma.us/400/Town-Moderator.

Most actions require a majority vote, but some, including borrowing, transfers of land, and most zoning amendments, require two-thirds; other measures require greater “super-majorities.”  Part of the moderator’s job is to know which quantum of vote applies to each type of action, and to explain these procedures to the voters.  The meeting can reconsider action on an article after the initial vote, but under Manchester’s By-law, it requires a two-thirds majority to do so, and an article may be reconsidered only once.  After acting on all the warrant articles, the meeting votes to “dissolve.”  Once dissolved, that meeting cannot reconvene.

Please plan to attend both the Annual and Special Town Meetings.  Town meeting is interesting – and fun.  It is also important.  This is where we, as neighbors, govern ourselves on issues that directly affect our lives.  Town meeting is the essence of democracy and of community.

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