16 Things Every Citizen Should Know About Town Meeting

Brush up on your town meeting skills!

1. Every Voter Is a Legislator.

Those quaint sayings about town government being a “pure democracy” are true! State law refers to the town meeting as the “legislative body” (RSA 21:47). The town meeting is to the town what the Legislature is to the State, or the Congress is to the United States: the town meeting has all the basic power. There is no higher authority in town. But in order to have the right to participate, you must be a registered voter of the town, and you must attend. If you don’t go, how can you justify blaming anybody but yourself?

2. The Moderator Presides, and Can Do What It Takes to Maintain Order.

The town meeting’s business is regulated by the moderator, and your right to vote is subject to the moderator’s authority to keep order. Voters may not talk without being recognized. If someone keeps on being disruptive after being warned, the moderator can ask a police officer to escort him/her out of the meeting (RSA 40:9).

3. The Voters Can Always Overrule the Moderator by a Simple Majority.

The moderator isn’t a king. S/he is merely a facilitator to enable the voters to take orderly joint actions. It is illegal for the moderator to preside in such a way as to make it impossible to overrule his/her rulings. Therefore, people who say that the moderator “rigs” the meeting are talking through their hats.

Many voters mistakenly believe that state law contains all sorts of complicated parliamentary rules governing town meetings. It doesn’t. All state law says is that the moderator can prescribe rules, but the voters can alter those rules (RSA 40:4). Nobody can pull parliamentary tricks as long as the voters stay alert and remain aware that they can vote, by a simple majority, to change the rules to accomplish what the majority wishes to accomplish.

Some towns, at the beginning of the meeting, adopt some set of rules for convenience, such as Robert’s Rules of Order. In other towns, the moderator just makes rulings as the meeting goes along. Either way is fine. Either way, the only legally-binding rule is that the voters can over­rule the moderator by a simple majority.

Example: Suppose the town begins the meeting by deciding to adopt Robert’s Rules for the duration. And suppose, a little later, someone moves to amend a motion a certain way, which is perfectly proper under Robert’s Rules, and the moderator declares that the amendment is valid. But now suppose it is moved and seconded to overrule the moderator, and the motion carries. Who wins? The voters, of course. Even though the moderator was “right” under Robert’s Rules, the voters are “right” because they are the higher authority when acting by majority vote.

Read the full article here.