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A Citizen's Guide to Town Meeting
Wilbraham has an Open Town Meeting form of government. This form of government is the purest form of direct democracy. Town Meeting is considered a legislative body. During the meeting, each voter is a legislator. At the meeting, voters will be asked to approve Town budgets, capital expenditures, zoning changes, Town By-Law changes, compensation for employees and elected officials, Town acquisition or disposition of land and more. “Open” Town Meeting means that all Wilbraham registered voters are eligible to participate and vote.
Each year, Wilbraham must conduct an Annual Town Meeting. Town By-laws require that this meeting be scheduled by the Selectmen during the April through June timeframe. Recent tradition has been to hold the meeting the Monday prior to Town elections which are held on the third Saturday of May. The Selectmen may call a Special Town Meeting at any time. Special Town Meetings are called as needed if waiting until the next Annual Meeting is not a desired option.
Town Meetings are televised and rebroadcast, at various times, by the Wilbraham Public Access channel.
The Warrant is basically the agenda for Town Meeting. It contains a number of articles which set the framework for motions that will be made at Town Meeting. The articles themselves are not necessarily the motions that will be made at Town Meeting. The Board of Selectmen are responsible for: determining the appropriate articles and preparing the Warrant, obtaining legal opinion on the validity of proposed articles, gathering input from Town staff and boards, and distribution of the Warrant.
Any ten (10) voters have the right to petition the Board of Selectmen to put an article on the Annual Town Meeting warrant. This number increases to one hundred (100) for inclusion in a Special Town Meeting, and two hundred (200) to petition the Board to call a Special Town Meeting. The deadline for submitting a citizen’s petition for a warrant article to be included in the Annual Town Meeting is February 1st if the article entails a monetary impact. If the petitioned warrant article has no monetary value, then the deadline is March 1st. Citizen petitioners should contact the Selectmen, Town Administrator or Town Clerk as early as possible for guidance. The Selectmen retain the right to reject any citizen’s petition article that might not be legally appropriate.
Town Meeting “Cast”
Registered Wilbraham Voters – Each voter is a legislator at Town Meeting. They are full participants in budgeting, allocating funds and law-making. Upon checking in to the Meeting, voters will be given a voting card that they will hold up (either for or against a motion) when the vote is called by the Moderator. Non-voters may attend the Meeting but may not vote, and may address the Meeting only with permission; traditionally, this permission is presumed for Town staff.
Town Moderator – The Town Moderator is elected for a three- (3) year term during Town elections. The Moderator presides over Town Meeting and is responsible for its conduct consistent with Town By-laws and Massachusetts General Laws and parliamentary procedures as defined in Town Meeting Time: A Handbook of Parliamentary Law published by the Massachusetts Moderators Association. Massachusetts General Laws grant the Moderator broad authority to accept parliamentary motions, regulate debate and rule speakers in or out of order. A primary role of the Moderator is to ensure that motions (or amendments to motions) remain within the scope of the article published in the Warrant.
Board of Selectmen – As noted above, the Selectmen prepare the warrant. Traditionally, they present the motions associated with most articles; generally, zoning article motions are made by the Planning Board, and citizen petition article motions are made by the petitioners. However, any voter may make the motion for an article. The Selectmen may present recommendations or explanations of articles.
Town Clerk – The Town Clerk is an elected official responsible for maintaining Town records. During Town Meeting, the Town Clerk checks in voters and records votes and actions taken at Town Meeting. If the elected moderator is not present at the start of the meeting, the Town Clerk will conduct the meeting until the Town Meeting voters elect a temporary moderator.
Finance Committee - The Finance Committee is appointed by the Board of Selectmen. They have the authority to make recommendations on all warrant articles. They are deeply involved with the budgeting process and make a detailed explanation of the proposed budget at Town Meeting. Their budget recommendation is included in the warrant. While the Finance Committee is charged with making recommendations on all articles, traditionally the Committee has referred recommendations on zoning articles to the Planning Board.
Town Counsel – Town Counsel attends Town Meeting to provide legal opinions on proposed actions being considered. During the Meeting, the Moderator may consult with Counsel prior to issuing a ruling, if the Moderator is in doubt about the legality of that ruling.
Boards, Committees and Staff – Depending on the article, Town boards, committees or staff may be called upon to make presentations or provide explanations on various articles.
Town Meeting Procedures
The Town Moderator is the elected official who is responsible for conducting Town Meeting. The Moderator’s authority and duties are defined in Massachusetts General Laws (Part I, Title VII, Chapter 39) and the Town of Wilbraham By-Laws. Furthermore, the Town By-Laws specifically state that “in all matters not specifically provided for in law or by the By-laws of the Town of Wilbraham, the Moderator shall be guided by the principles and rules of practice contained in the work entitled Town Meeting Time: A Handbook of Parliamentary Law. This book is published by the Massachusetts Moderators Association and is used by most town moderators in Massachusetts.
The quorum for Town Meeting in Wilbraham is fifty (50) voters. The Town Clerk will inform the Moderator once a quorum is present. The Meeting will be called to order, and after opening procedures have been completed, the warrant articles will be taken up in the order prescribed by the Warrant. Generally, only "Consent Agenda" items (description follows) or inter-dependent articles will be taken out of order.
As mentioned earlier, the article itself is not the motion. However, the motion associated with an article must be within the scope of that article as presented in the Warrant. A “reasonable” voter who has read the article should not be surprised by the content of the motion. Motions that expand upon the article or materially change it will be ruled out of order by the Moderator. Any voter may make a motion related to the article being taken up. However, traditionally the Selectmen have made most motions. Once there is a motion and a second, the proponents of the article may make a presentation to Town Meeting. These proponents may be Town officials (elected, appointed or staff) or individual voters (or their representatives), especially for a Citizen’s Petition Article.
In order to provide a balanced meeting, the Moderator will permit opponents to make formal (projector) presentations, as well. However, the Moderator expects to be notified of both pro and con presentations and to approve their content and duration in advance. After the presentations, Town voters may ask questions or argue in support or opposition to the motion. Any voter wishing to speak should line up at one of the microphones in the aisles. Once they are recognized by the Moderator, they should state their name and address. Town employees need not provide their address, but they should let Town Meeting know whether or not they are a Wilbraham voter. Speakers and presenters are encouraged to be brief, to the point and avoid repetition. Debate is encouraged, but personal attacks are not. Please argue the content of the motion, not the merits of those presenting their viewpoints. As long as there are voters lining up to speak, Wilbraham By-Laws do not allow the Moderator to cut off debate until five (5) voters have spoken on both sides of the issue. If there are less than five (5) voters speaking for one side, debate may be cut off after the five (5) voters have spoken on the other side.
The "Consent Agenda" is a series of articles that are voted in a single motion and vote. The Selectmen, with input from the Moderator, Town Counsel and the Finance Committee, identify articles that they feel will not generate controversy or debate. These often tend to be “housekeeping" types of articles. After the Consent Agenda motions are read, the Moderator will announce the article numbers that are included. If any voter wishes to discuss an article, he or she should shout “hold” as the article number is announced by the Moderator. This article will be removed from the Consent Agenda and moved and discussed in its normal position in the Warrant. Any voter may offer an amendment to an article. However, like the main motion, the amendment must not go beyond the scope of the article that was published in the Warrant. A voter may also offer an amendment to an amendment. An amendment requires a simple majority vote to pass, regardless of the quantum of vote required for the original motion. If the amendment passes, the original motion is replaced by the amended motion. The vote is then held on this amended motion, and the required quantum of vote returns to that of the original motion.
Town Meeting voting is generally done by voters holding up their voting card. When voters check in, their voter registration will be confirmed. They will then be given a colored card which they will hold up when asked for their vote. Different types of motions require different quanta of votes to pass. Most motions require a simple majority. If the vote were tied, a motion would fail. A lesser number requires a two-thirds (2/3) vote, (by-law and zoning articles are the most common in this group.) Finally, in rare occasions, the requirement may call for a four-fifths (4/5) or nine-tenths (9/10) majority vote to pass. For votes that require a simple majority or two-thirds, the Moderator may declare the results based upon observation. If any seven (7) voters stand to challenge the Moderator's declaration of vote, a count will be made by the election tellers. For those articles that require four-fifths or nine-tenths majority, a count must be taken unless the vote is unanimous. As a registered voter, the Moderator is entitled to vote. However, the Moderator will only vote if a count has been made, and the Moderator's vote affects the result.
Town Meeting shall not be adjourned until all warrant articles have been dealt with.
The following quote is attributed to Reginald Brown, Boxborough Town Moderator 1977 -2005:
“We were all friends and neighbors before this meeting; after this meeting we will still be neighbors; hopefully, we will still be friends.”
Respectfully submitted by:
George Reich, Town Moderator