Representative town meeting

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A representative town meeting government is a form of municipal government similar to the open town meeting structure in that legislative policies for the town are debated and set at an assembly of residents. However, in this form the residents of the town elect a large number of citizens, called town meeting members, to represent them at the town meeting. The voting members are elected from and represent a certain precinct or area of the town. While all residents may attend the meeting, only the town meeting members are permitted to vote on the legislative policies, such as ordinances, taxes, budgets and bonds. 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 at the meeting.[1][2]

The representative 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 open 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 representative 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 only 1% of municipalities use the representative town meeting form of government.[3]

Advantages and disadvantages

The representative town meeting addresses some of the challenges present in the open town meeting form. Open town meetings provide a structure of participatory democracy. They permit 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. However, 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.

Representative town meetings attempt to strike a balance between the ideals of participatory and representative democracy. By having elected voters from each precinct there is a greater chance of having a true representation of the town at the meetings. This also helps prevent special interests or single issues from dominating a meeting. Electing representatives can actually boost meeting attendance, and meeting members are more likely to form committees and formulate legislation than an open town meeting.

Yet, many towns continue to use the open meeting form as they place great value on granting a legislative vote to every qualified voter of the town.[4][5][2]

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