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What every voter should know about the Maine town meeting by Paul Mills

Last year's Farmington town meeting.

March marks the dawn of town meeting season. That means the system of government observed by over 400 Maine municipalities is now under way. Here’s what every voter should know about it:

Agenda: Though a town meeting can cover a wide range of subjects, from taxes to trash, from dog barking to cell phone tower heights, it still has to follow an agenda. In town meeting this is called a “warrant.” This is typically drawn up by elected officials. It must be posted at least seven days before the meeting. Items on the warrant are referred to as “articles.” If the subject you want to discuss isn’t in an article you can’t discuss it. Though there are some grass roots methods by which voters can - well in advance of the meeting - compel the addition of a topic to the agenda, you can’t spontaneously bring it up in the meeting itself unless it’s in the printed, posted warrant.

Modifying the Agenda: The precise wording of a town meeting article is not cast in concrete, however. Voters can tweak it even during the course of the meeting. This most often occurs in appropriation articles where motions can usually be made to change the amount to be spent. Other articles can also be modified a bit. An article that asks if the town will appoint a five member budget committee can be amended to increase its size to nine. The ability to amend an article, however, subject to limits. The same article on creating a budget committee could not be amended to see if the town would appoint a transportation committee instead. That’s because to do so would change the essence of what’s being voted upon. If one offers a detailed amendment, it’s best to put it writing.

Speaking: The town meeting allows and encourages this. Voters don’t necessarily show up to make arguments or score points. They can be there to ask questions of the town’s boards and department heads. To be sure, such questions can be as “loaded” as those posed by opposition leaders to British prime ministers in “Question Time,” but usually they are non-adversarial. In either case, the answer to some questions can be found in the widely distributed annual town report. But the town meeting does allow a give and take interaction for which the sterile format of a government publication are often no substitute. It does pay to be prepared. If time allows, look up in the report to see if what you want to know is already covered. If it isn’t, don’t hesitate to ask when it’s reached or “comes up” on the warrant.

When you do speak make sure you can be heard. The high ceiling gymnasiums where town meetings often occur are built for basketball. They are less than ideal for speaking. Use the microphone if one’s available. Stand up if you can. Speaking while sitting down makes it more difficult to be heard and often renders ineffectual what the speaker wants to say.

How to Move Things Along: If you feel the discussion has gone on long enough you can bring things to a halt by “moving the question.” If such a motion is made and seconded then a vote on whether to end debate has to be taken immediately. If two-thirds agree then the subject under discussion must then be voted upon.

You Don’t Understand What’s Going On: There comes a point in almost every town meeting where many people may not understand precisely what’s going on particularly if there’s a proposed amendment. Though it’s the presiding officer’s or “moderator’s” job to help explain this, sometimes he or she will assume voters understand what’s happening even when many of them don’t. If this is the case, simply stand up and ask.

Voting: The town meeting carries the First Amendment freedom of speech a big leap forward. It isn’t just a public hearing where you are merely allowed to talk. It’s where voters themselves make the decisions. They usually do this by either a “voice” or “show of hands” vote. If the moderator is in doubt, the moderator may call for a “standing” vote in which those in favor are first asked to stand up and subsequently those opposed asked to do the same. Occasionally, both voter privacy and the closeness of the outcome suggest a written ballot. Pieces of paper can then be handed out and voters asked to then deposit in a ballot box their “yes” or “no” choice on the issue. In some communities the written method is used at the request of just a single voter while in others the moderator will require this only at the insistence of a group. The method is also required in order to override the so-called property tax levy limit. It is frequently used in school district or RSU budget meetings. Indeed, Maine school law requires the written ballot when 10 percent of those at a district budget meeting request it. Town meeting law does not include a similar provision. The moderator in such meetings has more leeway when to invoke a written ballot.

Paul H. Mills

Go there: Write-ups like this column and more detailed manuals do not completely cover the subject. They can only say so much about what happens at a town meeting. Find out for yourself by attending one!

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney who has moderated over 200 town and school district budget meetings in 16 different towns and school districts in Franklin and Somerset counties in the last 35 years. He can be reached by e-mail:

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1 Responses »

  1. Paul Mills has spun his magic again! He always comes up with the right information at the right time. His article reminds me of the intricacies of Town Meetings and makes me miss them. Not only that, the article reminds of us of how lucky Maine is have a chance to participate so directly in our democracy! Thank you, Paul