Citizens's Primer on Town Meeting

Town of Rutland
Rutland, Massachusetts
Citizen's Primer
Town Meeting

Town Seal

Addison E. Redfield, Moderator 2004-2007

Sally M. Hayden, Town Clerk 1991-2013
Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.
Alex de Tocqueville
The most important office … that of private citizen.
___ Louis Brandeis
What is a Town Meeting?
A Town Meeting is both an event and an entity. As an event it is a gathering of a town’s eligible voters and is referred to as “the Town Meeting”. As an entity, it is the legislative body for towns in Massachusetts, and is referred to simply as “Town Meeting”. So you may say, “I went to the Town Meeting. Town Meeting approved the budget.”
Does Rutland have Town Meetings?   
Yes, Rutland has what is called Open Town Meetings
What is an open Town Meeting?          
An Open Town Meeting means that all of Rutland’s registered voters may vote on all matters.
Is there a quorum required for Rutland’s Town Meetings?
Yes, the number of voters necessary to constitute a quorum at any town meeting in Rutland is ten (10).
What does Town Meeting decide?     
Town Meeting decides three major things.
  • It elects the town’s officers (town election), paid and unpaid, and sets the salaries for the paid positions.
  • It votes to appropriate money to run the town.
  • It votes on our local statutes, which are called by-laws.
What is a moderator?
Generally, a moderator’s job is to run the Town Meeting. Specifically, the moderator declares the outcome of all votes. Rutland has a set of by-laws that govern Town Meeting procedure. The elected term of the Rutland Town Moderator is 1 year.
What is a selectman or selectwoman?
Selectmen are Rutland’s executive officers. Voters elect them to the Board of Selectmen. As of May 2007
Rutland has 5 members who are elected to staggered terms.
What does the town clerk do?
At the Town Meeting, the town clerk records all votes and takes minutes. Rutland’s town clerk is elected for a 3 year term.
What is a town counsel?
The town counsel is a private lawyer that counts Rutland among his/her clients. During the Town Meeting, the town counsel answers legal questions that may come up. He or she is appointed by the selectmen.
What is a select committee?
A select committee is assigned to investigate and report back to the Town Meeting on a certain subject, or to undertake a certain substantive task. The moderator frequently appoints its chairperson and members. Select committees are also called special committees.
What is a Finance Committee?
A committee appointed by the moderator, subject to ratification by the selectboard, consisting of seven (7) legal voters of the town. Members are appointed to 3 year terms. Finance committee members may not hold any other appointed or elected office in the town.
What does the Finance Committee do?
In Rutland, the finance committee considers the expenditures of the several boards, officers and committees of the town and makes its recommendations at Town Meeting. The finance committee also reports on all articles contained on any Town Meeting warrant.
May voters call a special Town Meeting?
Yes. Two hundred Rutland registered voters may request a special Town Meeting by petition. Copies of petitions are available at the town clerk’s office which may be used to collect the two hundred signatures needed.
May a special Town Meeting be called for more than one reason?
Yes. For example, a special Town Meeting could be called to consider amending a zoning by-law and for buying a new fire truck.
What is a warrant?
The warrant lists a meeting’s time, place and agenda (articles). A warrant is also known as a warning. A Town Meeting’s action is not valid unless the subject was listed on the warrant, and all action taken at Town Meeting must be within the scope of the article.  It is up to the moderator’s discretion if amendments made to an article are within the original scope of the article.
When is the warrant available?
Per Rutland by-law, the warrant must be posted in at least 5 public places not less than 14 days prior to the annual Town Meeting or any special Town Meeting.
Who makes up the warrant?
The selectmen, who “issue” it.
What are articles?
Articles are items on the warrant. Article 1 on the annual Town Meeting’s warrant is usually to elect officers to various offices, our annual town election. Article 2 on our annual Town Meeting warrant is usually to hear reports from town officers and/or town committees. Appropriations for each town function or department may be in separate articles. Or one article on the warrant may propose a zoning by-law change. Each article is a separate issue.
May voters place articles on the warrant?
Yes. Rutland voters may “insert” articles in the warrant. They have to do it before the selectmen “close” the warrant. A cutoff date set by the selectmen.
To insert an article in the warrant for an annual Town Meeting, at least 10 Rutland registered votes must sign a petition. If you want a sample of an article to use to draft your article, go to town hall and ask for a copy of the annual report. It will have warrants from the previous year’s Town Meetings, which you can use as samples. For further assistance, contact the town clerk or selectmen’s office.
Voice Vote
The moderator asks that all in favor (everyone voting “yes”) say, “Yea” (which is pronounced “yay”). Then the moderator asks that all opposed say “No”.
Show of hands  
The moderator asks that all in favor raise their right hand. Then the moderator asks that all opposed raise their right hand. The moderator looks at the number of hands in general and decides which side prevailed. Or hands are counted.
Standing vote  
All in favor are asked to stand or rise. They are counted by tellers who the moderator appoints at the beginning of each Town Meeting. Next, all voters who are opposed are asked to stand. They are counted. This form of vote is also known as dividing the meeting.
Secret ballots
In Rutland, a majority vote of the voters present is needed for a secret ballot. All voters are given a ballot that says YES and NO with a perforation in the middle. The voter chooses either the “yes” half or the “no” half and puts it into the ballot box. The remaining half is discarded in the trash basket provided next to the allot box. Once everyone has voted, the ballots are counted by the tellers. The results are reported to the moderator who then declares the outcome.
Are there votes that cannot be taken by voice?
Yes. Certain votes such as a zoning by-law change or borrowing of money require a 2/3 majority vote. Unless the voice vote is unanimous in favor of the article, the moderator will find it impossible to determine if more than 2/3 of the voters said “yea”. A vote requiring a super-majority (more than a simple majority) is usually decided by a standing vote.
What if I think the moderator did not decide correctly a voice vote or an informal show of hands?
The handbook “Town Meeting Time” stipulates that if a vote is immediately questioned by seven or more voters, verbally and by rising in place, the moderator must verify the vote “by polling the voters or by dividing the meeting unless the Town has, by a previous order or by by-law, provided another method”.
How do I speak in a debate?
If you wish to speak, raise your hand until the moderator recognizes you. If he or she cannot see you, stand and say, “Mr. Moderator!” to get his/her attention. Once recognized, state your name and street address. Speak about the topic being discussed only. Don’t speak about a previous or future matter.  Stay within the scope of the motion or article, be to the point and brief. Direct your comments to the moderator, not to the Town Meeting or individuals. Fox example, do not say, “I have something to say to the Town Meeting,” or “Mr. Black, you said something I want to respond to.” Instead, say something like, “Mr. Moderator, these are my thoughts on this article.” You may attack a previous speaker’s argument, but do not attack a previous speaker. For example, do not say, “the previous speaker is dead wrong”. Instead, say something like, “I disagree with the argument we just heard”.
To recommit………………………give it back to a committee for more research
To amend…………………………. to change the motion
To refer……………………………gjve it to a committee for a recommendation
To postpone to a day certain………postpone action until a certain date
Postpone indefinitely………………to defeat it
Take no action…………………… defeat it
What does a “motion to take from the table” mean?
Tabling a motion or article generally means to kill it, but it does not mean to kill it finally. To take an issue from the table means to consider an issue that the Town Meeting previously tabled.
I’m not familiar with making motions, how do I make one?
Rather than make a motion that may require the moderator to untangle and decode, stand up and ask the moderator, when you’re recognized, how to make a motion to achieve what you want to do.  All motions should be put in writing but is up to the moderator’s discretion.  Blank motion sheets are available on the stage in front of the town clerk.
How do I call for a vote?
Move the previous question, which means to call for a vote.  When recognized, say, “I move the question.” This shuts off all debate. This motion needs to be voted on first and needs a 2/3 vote to pass. If passed, the meeting will go directly to a vote on the previous motion with no more debate.
What is a reconsideration motion?
After all articles on the warrant have been decided, before the meeting adjourns, any voter can make a motion to reconsider a previous article. It requires a 2/3 vote of the remaining voters to pass, and if it does, it puts that article back on Town Meeting floor for debate and a new vote. The results of that new vote stands and that article can not be reconsidered a second time. If you have a special issue you may want to stay at the meeting until it adjourns sine die.
What’s the difference between adjourning, recessing and dissolving?
Dissolving the Town Meeting means that it is over until the next Town Meeting, which must be called by a new warrant. If the Town Meeting has not dissolved, but is taking a break, and will resume on the same day, it has recessed. “Adjourning” is an imprecise word. It is sometimes used to mean “dissolving”, sometimes “recessing”, and sometimes that one day of the Town Meeting has ended, and that the Town Meeting will resume on a later day.
What does it mean to adjourn “without day”?
Adjourning “without day” means that the Town Meeting has dissolved. Adjourning “without day” is also called adjourning “sine die”. In other words, the Town Meeting has adjourned without setting another day to reconvene. A new warrant is needed to reconvene.
What is a “Stabilization Fund”?
A Stabilization Fund, sometimes called “the rainy day fund” is established to save town money for future use for any legitimate municipal purpose voted on at a Town Meeting. Money added to or taken from the Stabilization Fund requires a 2/3 vote.
A Stabilization Fund is designed to accumulate amounts for capital and other future spending purposes, although it may be appropriated for any lawful purpose. A two-thirds vote of town meeting is required to establish, amend the purpose of, or appropriate money into or from the stabilization fund.
What is “Free Cash”?
Free Cash is money unexpended from various town accounts, surplus revenues, prior year’s free cash, or outstanding property taxes. Typically free cash is used for special purchases, put into the Stabilization Fund, or to reduce property taxes.
Free Cash is remaining, unrestricted funds from operations of the previous fiscal year including unexpended free cash from the previous year, actual receipts in excess of revenue estimates shown on the tax recapitulation sheet, and unspent amounts in budget line-items.
What is “Raise and Appropriate”?
Raise and Appropriate refers to the method of funding town budgets or for the purchase of items or services. Money is “raised” from property taxed, state aid, local receipts, and other available funds and “appropriated” at Town Meeting.
Raise and Appropriate is a phrase used to identify a funding source for an expenditure or expenditures, which refers to money generated by the tax levy or other local receipt.
Original version written by Kenneth Bresler and modified with his permission by
Keith Billian, Town Moderator of the Town of Wrentham
Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 39 and 43A
Town Meeting Time:  A Handbook of Parliamentary Law, Richard B. Johnson, Benjamin A. Trustman, Charles Y. Wadsworth, 2nd ed., Robert D. Krieger Publishing Co. (Malabar, Florida 1984)
Your Massachusetts Government, Donald Levitan, Elwyn E. Mariner, 10th ed., Government Research Publications (Newton Centre, Mass 1984)
Manual for New Moderators, Massachusetts Moderators Association, 2nd ed. (1995)
Citizen’s Primer on Town Meeting, Kenneth Bresler