Open town meeting

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An open town meeting government is a form of municipal government in which all qualified voters of the municipality have an opportunity to assemble on a given day to debate and vote on policy decisions. The town meeting usually occurs annually, but special meetings may be called more frequently. A board of officials, called selectmen or supervisors, is elected to carry out the legislative policies set by the citizens. This structure is often considered the purest form of participatory democracy. Voters gather to speak their minds, weigh the pros and cons of policy and directly participate in passing ordinances, taxes, budgets, bonds and other legislative matters.[1][2]

The open town meeting form is one of the five historical forms of municipal government in the United States. The others are mayor-council, council-manager, city commission and representative town meeting.[1] A municipality's form of government and distribution of powers may be determined by state law, the municipal charter or local ordinances. The open town meeting form of government is largely found in towns in New England. According to surveys by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), as of 2011 6% of municipalities use the open town meeting form of government.[3]

Advantages and disadvantages

The open town meeting provides a structure of participatory democracy. It permits voters a direct say in the town's priorities and how it is run. The structure has a deep historical tradition and has worked well for some small localities. When residents are well informed and care about the issues, and a large enough number of voters attend meetings to be representative of the town, the aim of the structure is fulfilled.

In some cases, voter attendance at town meetings is low. Residents that do attend may be one-issue oriented or have special interests. In this case, the structure is no longer providing participatory or representative democracy. Low attendance also takes away an important means of checks and balances on the executive officials.

Some towns have responded to these challenges by adopting variations on the open meeting structure. One type of variation limits the issues presented at the town meeting, such as removing the participatory budget process. Instead, these towns have the executive board prepare the budget and then hold a referendum vote on the proposal. Other towns have opted to switch to a representative town meeting structure. This form operates similarly to the open town meeting form, except that while all residents may attend meetings and participate in debate, only those elected as representatives may cast a vote.[4][5][2]

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