Profile | Town Meeting
The legislative branch of our town's government
We’ve already talked about why Burlington is considered a town and not a city, and that is owed to our Town Meeting style of government. But what is Town Meeting, and how does it work?
What is Town Meeting?
Massachusetts has two different Town Meeting structures - open, where anyone can come and vote, and representative, where anyone can come but only elected members can vote. Open Town Meetings are required for smaller towns (populations under 6,000) but can get cumbersome with larger populations. Since 1970, Burlington's Town Meeting has been representative - and only 33 towns in the state have this kind of structure.
Currently, Burlington is divided into 7 precincts with 18 elected Town Meeting Members per precinct, for a total of 126 voting members. Six members are elected from each precinct every April for a term of 3 years. There are three town meetings each year - one in January, one in May (this is a long, often multi-day meeting where the town's annual budget is discussed and approved) and one in September.
Town Meeting is responsible for approving the allocation of funds in the town and approving changes, additions, or deletions to the local statutes, called bylaws (including zoning bylaws). Town Meeting also sets and approves salaries for elected officials.
How Does Town Meeting Work?
A couple weeks before Town Meeting, the Warrant (the document that has all the articles up for a vote) and any supporting documentation for the articles (called the Backup) are circulated to TM Members and available online for the public to review.
There are several committees appointed by the Town Moderator, whose details I'll list below. Committees also are sometimes appointed on an as-needed basis - the Transportation Committee and Sidewalk Committee are recent examples of such committees. These committees review relevant warrant articles prior to town meeting and make a recommendation in favor or against each article.
- Bylaw Review Committee; 5 members; 1-year term. Review and propose bylaws, and reconcile our town's bylaws with state law
-Zoning Bylaw Review Committee; 9 voting and 2 non-voting members; 3-year term. Monitor, review, and make recommendations to Town Meeting regarding any changes to the town’s zoning bylaws
- Capital Budget Committee; 7 members; 3-year term. Consider proposed budgets for capital projects and make recommendations to Town Meeting
- Facilities Committee; 7 members; 2-year-term. Reviews and make recommendations to Town Meeting on the use, maintenance, construction, and disposition of town buildings, physical plant, and infrastructure
- Human Services Committee; 7 members; 3-year term. Consider proposed human services programs and make recommendations to Town meeting
- Land Use Committee; 9 members; 3-year-term. Review and make recommendations regarding the use of land in our town
- Rules Committee: 13 members; 1-year term. Ensure TM is conducted properly and make related recommendations
- Ways & Means Committee (aka Finance Committee); 15 members; 3-year term. Make recommendations to TM regarding any financial articles
As articles are presented at Town Meeting, the Moderator will ask for committee recommendations on each one. This provides insight on whether an article is feasible and fits in with historical precedent, and sometimes brings up issues individuals haven't considered.
Town Meeting in Action
In the last few years, Town Meeting has had the opportunity to decide whether or not to appropriate money to fund, among many other things,
- Installation of a sun shade at Wildwood Park
- A director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in our schools
- Period product dispensers in school bathrooms
- many, many other budget appropriations
Town Meeting has also voted on updating the term "Board of Selectmen" to “Select Board,” updating our zoning bylaws to be sure we are attracting amazing biotech businesses to the area, and much more.
At our most recent Town Meeting on February 16, Town meeting voted to approve $1.5 million in funding for a feasibility study, establish guidelines for more dedicated outdoor seating at restaurants, and to approve a new zoning district to add “education, experiential, and interactive” uses. This would ideally bring more business into town and provide fun activities for families to do close to home.
Town Moderator and Town Clerk
The Town Moderator and Town Clerk are two other offices that greatly support the efforts of Town Meeting.
The Town Moderator is a one-year elected official whose job it is to facilitate debate and discussion during Town Meeting. Any conversation between attendees goes through the moderator. Another responsibility of the moderator is to appoint committees. Town Meeting Members are not required to sit on committees, or they may serve on more than one committee. For this reason, there is a broad range of local government activities a community member could undertake depending on their availability.
The Town Clerk holds a five-year term. The Town Clerk's office is the source for information and records for the town. The Town Clerk is also responsible for organizing all the materials necessary for Town Meeting. They assemble the warrant and backup, and ensure all the logistics are set for TM. Elections fall under the Town Clerk's purview, too, and you'll want to check out the Town Clerk's website throughout the year for all the information you need about not just running for office but VOTING!
You Can Get Involved Now!
A few hours of your time each year, either to get to know the issues facing the town and how the town is dealing with those issues, or to actually get involved and run for a seat, make a big difference in understanding the community in which we live. Our community is enriched by having many different perspectives represented in our local government.
I hope this helps you get a better feel for how our local lawmaking body works. Be sure to check out the Local Government section of the Buzz for more profiles on our elected and appointed Boards and Commissions. Learn more about Town meeting on the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s website.