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Special Town Meeting 101: How It Works, What To Expect & Why Voters Should Attend

Tewksbury has 23,622 registered voters, and our 2021 local census population is 30,266. The average number of voters who’ve attended town meetings back to 2018, according to Town Clerk Denise Graffeo? 240.

That means that about 1% voters are making major decisions for the whole town. The highest number of town meeting attendees since 2018 was 922 in May 2019, when the town voted to build a new elementary school.

Attendance at recent Tewksbury annual and special town meetings.

At the next special town meeting on Oct. 5, residents will be asked to authorize the town to fund drainage improvements at Livingston Street; place some land under the control of the Conservation Commission to protect in perpetuity watershed resources, open space and wildlife habitats; act to protect our groundwater at a local superfund site; and much more.

The Carnation encourages all voters to attend town meeting — while it does take some planning, especially for parents and those who work evenings, decisions made there affect everything from the bags used in local stores to the money allocated to schools to how land near your home is zoned.

There is still time to register to vote and be eligible to take part, but that window closes on Sept. 24. The Town Clerk has information about how to register here.

What is town meeting? Tewksbury is one of more than 250 towns that have an open town meeting form of government, where all registered voters have a say in everything from zoning to how money is spent to how long elected officials serve and what they are paid. 

Town meeting is often described as “the purest form of democratic governing,” and in Tewksbury, citizens have elected to keep open town meeting for that reason.

When is town meeting? In Tewksbury, town meetings convene in May and October. The next town meeting is on Oct. 5, 2021 at 7 p.m. Interestingly, the town elections in April are actually part of our annual TM. Town meetings are held in the gym at Tewksbury Memorial High School.

What’s the difference between annual and special town meetings? Each town must hold one annual town meeting; in Tewksbury, that is held in May. Additional town meetings are called “special” meetings. They may be called by the Board of Selectmen as many times during the year as is considered necessary.

In general, annual town meeting acts on fiscal issues, zoning changes, bylaw amendments and other matters affecting the town. Special town meetings typically deal with paying bills and zoning articles.

Citizens may submit articles for either annual or special TM. In October, there will be two citizen-submitted articles, one on Planning Board term lengths and one to make Tewksbury a “do not knock” town.

Who can take part? Anyone can attend, but only Tewksbury residents who are registered to vote can vote at TM. There is a visitors’ section for nonvoters, press and nonresidents who are interested in attending. Kids are welcome at TM and don’t need to sit in the visitor section.

What is voted on at town meeting? Before every TM, the town clerk issues a warrant, which lists the articles up for vote. Residents can find warrants on the town’s website, and paper copies are sent to all residents. Paper warrants are also available at the library and town hall, and copies as well as addendums are available at the meeting. The warrant lists a meeting’s time, location and the articles to be considered. 

What happens when I go to town meeting: It’s a good idea to arrive at least 15 minutes early to check in. Voters will be issued a ribbon to wear that indicates they are eligible to vote.

The moderator will call the meeting to order. After some opening formalities, articles come up for vote in order. Noncontroversial articles may be bundled into a single article, called a “consent calendar,” to be voted on together. This saves time.

Any voter may speak on any article; nonresidents and nonvoters may also speak, with permission of the voting body. More on speaking dos and don’ts later.

Once all speakers have had their say, the moderator calls for a vote. Most votes are handled by either voice vote or by counters — people physically walking around with clickers to count off voters, who rise for either a “yes” or a “no” vote. Articles that deal with salaries are handled via secret ballot.

Town meetings must end by 11 p.m., but residents are normally out earlier, depending on how many articles there are and whether items are controversial.

Who runs TM? It’s the moderator’s job to run town meeting. Specifically, the moderator declares the outcome of all voice votes, decides if a standing count is needed and rules on procedural issues. In Tewksbury, the moderator has broad discretion.

Moderators are elected, and the term of office is three years in Tewksbury. When an elected moderator is absent, a temporary moderator may be elected at town meeting.

What if I have something to say? When it’s an article’s turn to be debated, you walk up to the podium. There may be a line to speak. When it’s your turn, the moderator will ask you to state your name and address for the record.

Do: Speak clearly and directly into the microphone so everyone can hear you, and stick to the topic being discussed. Direct all comments to the moderator. If you have a question for, say, the town manager, ask it through the moderator.

Don’t: Attack or attempt to debate any individual, official or previous speaker. Tewksbury has a proud tradition of being respectful at its town meetings, even on contentious articles. Keep arguments factual, stick to the allotted five minutes and pay attention to the moderator.

While everyone has an opportunity to ask questions, residents are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the warrant in advance. There is usually plenty of information available about complicated or out-of-the ordinary articles, and the finance committee and other boards hold informational meetings in advance of TM where residents can ask questions and get information.

Specifically, the Finance Committee holds a hearing on all the warrant articles prior to Town Meeting — and the date and time of that hearing is listed on the cover of each warrant. The Finance Committee has one major job: to advise town meeting. This hearing is the very best place to ask questions about articles, as it is less formal than town meeting and staff are on hand to give answers.

For October STM, this meeting will be held on Wed., Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall. Find the agenda here.

In the coming weeks, the Carnation will also have coverage of the articles up for consideration.

Can I put an article on the warrant? Yes, though not for October, as that warrant is already set. You can find it here. Citizen articles for annual town meetings require 10 signatures from registered voters, while articles for special town meetings require 100 signatures. Articles must be reviewed by town counsel to ensure they conform with state laws and town bylaws. The town clerk can advise interested residents on deadlines and provide examples.

Some terms you may hear, and what they mean:

Amendment: Any TM participant may make a motion to amend an article; that is, to add or change language. Amendments must be presented to the moderator in writing and be voted on.

Indefinite postponement: This is a negative motion. A yes vote on indefinite postponement, or on “tabling the article,” defeats the article.

Move the question or article: This is a motion to end discussion on an article and go to a vote. A resident may stand and make a motion to “move the question” when he or she believes the arguments are becoming redundant. Note, however, that you cannot get up, make an argument and then ask to move the question and thus shut out further debate. The moderator decides when to close debate and normally allows those in line to speak.

Two-thirds vote: Sometimes a super-majority — two-thirds of voters present —must vote yes for specific articles to pass. An example is rezoning.

Want to see a town meeting in action? You can watch the most recent annual and special town meetings on Tewksbury TV’s YouTube channel. These also show Covid protections that will be in place, namely masks and plenty of space between residents.

The Carnation staff hopes to see you on Oct. 5. If you have questions not answered here. drop a line to editor@tewksburycarnation.org.

Provider of hyperlocal news, insights and events from Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Community-driven journalism by Tewksbury, for Tewksbury.

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