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Town Meeting

The Moderator
The Warrant
Town Meeting Procedure
Main Motions
Subsidiary Motions
Incidental Motions
Privileged Motions

 

The town meeting form of government, which has been the fundamental form of local government in New England since colonial times, has often been called “the purest form of democracy.” The power of government is directly in the hands of the people. On one day each year, residents are invited to come together as citizen legislators to participate in the future of the town, to make laws (called bylaws), and to authorize the levy of taxes to fund town services. Harvard has been governed by town meetings since its incorporation in 1732.

Harvard’s five-member Board of Selectmen, which serves as the executive branch of local government, is authorized to call town meetings. It sets the date of the required annual town meeting, usually the last Saturday in March, and any special town meetings. Special town meetings may also be held as the result of citizen petitions.

All registered voters may participate in town meetings. Nonregistered visitors may attend but may not vote. Visitors are seated in a separate section to facilitate the counting of votes. Anyone recognized by the Moderator, including visitors, may speak.

The Moderator

The presiding officer at all town meetings is the Moderator, elected for a one-year term, with power “to give liberty of speech, and silence unceasonable and disorderly speakeings, to put all things to voate, and in case the voate be tied to have the casting voice.”1 Although the Moderator uses Town Meeting Time, A Handbook of Parliamentary Law (third edition, 2001) as a general guide, he or she has complete control and exercises final decisions. The only rules that consistently apply are those required by state statute.

1The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639)

The Warrant

The warrant is the agenda for town meeting. It is drawn up by the Board of Selectmen and must be posted by the Constable at least seven days before annual town meeting and fourteen days before special town meetings. In Harvard, this posting is at the Town Hall and at the Harvard and Still River post offices. A copy of the warrant is usually mailed to all residents.

The warrant states the time and place of the meeting and the business (articles) to be addressed. The town’s operating expenses for the next fiscal year (July 1 to June 30) are listed in a single article called the “omnibus budget”. First-time and non-recurring expenses are described in separate articles. The Moderator allows only business that is on the warrant, but motions for recognition, appreciation, etc. may be submitted to the Moderator for consideration.

Warrant ariticles may be proposed by town committees or inserted by the Board of Selectmen or by a citizen petition (signed by at least ten registered voters) to the Selectmen. The deadline for article submissions is decided by the Selectmen.

Articles are addressed at town meeting in the order they appear on the Warrant, although the Moderator may, with good cause, change this order. Also, motions from the floor may be introduced to change the order.

Town Meeting Procedure

The Moderator recognizes speakers, and “while they are speaking allows no interruptions except when a point of order is raised.2 When a voter wishes to speak, he or she may stand and say “Mr./Madam Moderator” or may raise a hand, and wait for recognition. At a microphone the speaker then states his or her name and street address. The speaker may continue, with reasonable brevity, as long as he or she speaks directly to the article under discussion. All comments and questions must be addressed to the Moderator and not to other individuals. The Moderator may forbid any speech considered improper or inappropriate.

After a vote has been taken on an article, that article may not be commented upon except on a motion to reconsider or rescind. This motion must be made by someone who voted on the prevailing side of the question.

2Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 39, Section 15

Main Motions

Warrent articles, as written, are not motions. When each is read at town meeting by its sponsoring committee or citizen, it is prefaced by language (e.g. “I move to...”) making it a main motion. The Moderator then asks for a second to the motion. The second must be by a voter other than the original mover. If seconded, the motion may be debated or amended before being voted (yes or no), deferred, or otherwise diposed of. Main motions yield to all relevant subsidiary motions (in ranking order) and ncidental motions, and to all privileged motions, regardless of relevance.

Withdrawals of main motions may be made by majority vote or unanimous consent before a vote is taken. Once a motion has been voted, however, it may not be withdrawn.

Subsidiary Motions
Subsidiary motions relate to the main motion and are ranked in order of precedence. A motion of lower rank may not be considered while a higher ranking motion is pending.

Motion
(ranked higher to lower)
Meaning
Second
Needed

Vote
Needed

Debate
Amend
Reconsider
To lay motion on the table. To temporarily set aside the motion.
yes
2/3
no
no
yes
To move the previous question. To move to end debate (must be voted before the meeting can vote on the motion itself).
yes
2/3
no
no
yes
To limit or extend debate. To set a specific time limit.
yes
2/3
no
no
yes
To postpone. To set the motion aside until a specified time .
yes
majority
yes
yes
yes
To commit or refer. To refer the matter to a committee for study.
yes
majority
yes
yes
yes
First (or primary) amendment. To modify the main motion on the floor. Must not enlarge the scope of the motion. Must be in writing.
yes
majority
yes
yes
yes
Second (or secondary) amendment. To modify the primary (first) amendment. Must be in writing. An unlimited number of secondary amendment may be made, but they are considered and disposed of one at a time.
yes
majority
yes
no
yes
To postpone indefinitely. To postpone the main motion indefinitely.
yes
majority
yes
no
yes

Incidental Motions
Incidental motions relate to the conduct of the meeting. They are considered and disposed of before action on the motion from which they arise. Except for a point of order, these motions may not interrupt the speaker.

Motion
Meaning
Second
Needed

Vote
Needed

Debate
Amend
Reconsider
Point of order.
There are only three:
1. Is the speaker entitled to the floor?
2. Is the speaker saying anything contrary to proper procedure?
3. Is the pending action contrary to proper procedure?

Question to the moderator. The questioner may interupt a speaker: "Mr. Moderator, I rise to a point of order." Questioner remains standing until recognized by the chair.

no
none
no
no
no
Appeal. To appeal a ruling of the chair.
yes
majority
yes
yes
yes
To divide the question. To divide a motion into sections.
yes
majority
yes
yes
no
To separate consideration. To consider a motion paragraph by paragraph.
yes
majority
yes
yes
no
To fix the method of voting. To vote by standing or by paper ballet instead of by show of hands.
yes
majority
yes
yes
yes
Nominations. To propose membership on a committee.
no
plurality
no
no
no
To request leave to withdraw or modify. Permission to withdraw or modify a motion after it has been stated and seconded, but before voting.
no
majority
no
no
no
To suspend rules. To permit an exception to the rules (e.g. a nonresident speaker).
yes
2/3
no
no
no

Privileged Motions and Questions of Privilege

Privileged motions relate to adjournment:
•  To dissolve the meeting.
•  To recess or adjourn to a fixed time.
•  To fix the time at which to adjourn.

Questions of privilege relate to the rights and/or safety of the meeting or the attendees. A question of privilege may interrupt the speaker, does not require a second or a vote, and may not be debated, amended, or reconsidered.

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