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May Town Meeting: How It Works, What To Expect & Why Tewksbury Voters Should Attend

Tewksbury has an Open Town Meeting form of government, which means that any registered voter may come out in May and October and weigh in on salaries for our elected officials, the appropriation of money to run the town, statutes including zoning bylaws and citizen petitions that are put on the warrant by residents who gather enough signatures.

In just three weeks, newly elected Moderator Dustin Weir will preside over Annual Town Meeting on May 2 & 4 and Special Town Meeting on May 4.

On May 2, residents will be asked to authorize the town to place new benches at the Town Common, purchase equipment to update the skateboard park at Livingston St. and fund the Senior and Veterans’ Tax Relief Work Program, among other articles.

On May 4, voters will be asked to shift some departmental funds, pay miscellaneous bills and cover costs for snow and ice removal in Special Town Meeting. Then we’ll reopen Annual Town Meeting to address a new zoning bylaw that narrowly failed at October Town Meeting and has been revised to address concerns raised last year.

Note that zoning articles are always on the second night of Town Meeting. We’ll dig into some of the articles in more depth over the coming weeks.

While it does take planning to attend town meeting, especially for parents and those who work evenings, decisions made there have affected 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 on May 4, but that window closes on April 22. The Town Clerk will hold a registration day on Friday.

You can find our writeup of the Finance Committee’s TM recommendations here, and watch the full meeting here. If you plan to attend and are unfamiliar with the articles, this is a great way to learn about them in advance.

Here’s our 101 on Town Meeting.

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 rather than move to a representative format, like Billerica and Reading have.

When is town meeting? In Tewksbury, town meetings convene in May and October. The next town meeting is on May 2, 2022 at 7:30 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 May, there will be two citizen-submitted articles, one on overnight parking of recreational vehicles, and one in which a land owner is seeking spot zoning to allow him to build more residential units than are allowed by right.

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.

How do I know what is going to be 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. There is a TM page on the town’s website with all warrants and links to more information.

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. If a participant does not think an article belongs in the consent calendar, he or she may ask for it to be pulled out and addressed individually.

Any voter may speak on any article; nonresidents and nonvoters may also speak, but only with permission of the voting body. Generally, voters welcome our elected representatives who live out of town and individuals with an interest in particular articles. More on speaking dos and don’ts later.

Once all speakers have had their say, the moderator calls for a vote. With exception of secret ballots, used for salaries, votes are handled by either voice vote or by counters — people physically walking around with clickers to count voters, who rise for either a “yes” or a “no” vote. If the moderator feels a voice vote is inconclusive, a standing count will be taken. Voters may also request standing counts.

Town meetings must end by 11 p.m., but residents are normally out earlier. The length depends 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. There is normally a time limit of five minutes.

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 directly 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 time 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 May 2022, this meeting was held on March 30 at Town Hall. Find the video 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 May, as that warrant is already set. 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 some rezoning, though a 2021 Massachusetts law now allows some rezoning efforts to pass on a simple majority, a fairly major change.

Want to see a town meeting in action? You can watch the most recent town meeting on Tewksbury TV’s YouTube channel.

The Carnation staff hopes to see you on May 2. If you have questions not answered here. drop a line to tewksburycarnation@gmail.com.

Lorna is a 25-year resident of Tewksbury who has written for organizations ranging from the DIA to InformationWeek to a free weekly in New London that sent her to interview the pastry chef at Foxwoods.

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