In Needham, anyone can bring a petition for local legislation. It’s one of the benefits of the Town Meeting form of governing.

Over the years, residents have used citizens’ petitions for changes in zoning, general bylaws and to address what they perceive to be general nuisances. 

If a resident or group of residents wishes to include an article in the warrant, they must write the petition and obtain at least 10 signatures from registered voters to bring it to an annual Town Meeting (100 signatures for a special Town Meeting). If no member of a group crafting the petition is a Town Meeting member, they must find a Town Meeting member to be the proponent — or cosponsor — as only Town Meeting members can make the motion to adopt the article on the floor. 

A citizens’ petition must be submitted well in advance of Town Meeting so that the Select Board can review it and enter it into the warrant article. It is also reviewed by the town counsel to ensure it is legal and written correctly.

Once those steps are completed, one of three things may occur. The Select Board and/or town manager may offer changes to improve the petition — which the author(s) can choose to accept — they may leave it as written and include it in the next Town Meeting warrant, or they may suggest withdrawing it. In some cases, the Select Board will tell the proponents that it plans to examine that issue in the future or that work is already being done on that topic. The Select Board is required to include any citizens’ petition that complies with the law. 

Citizens’ petitions can be either binding or nonbinding depending on the subject matter, and this is typically indicated in the language of the warrant. A nonbinding petition may be used to show support for action residents want the town to take on a certain issue and can be a good barometer for governing boards when setting their annual goals. Binding petitions, if passed, may require the action to be taken within a timeframe noted in the article, provided bylaw changes are not effective until approved by the Massachusetts Attorney General.

Citizens’ petitions are presented, discussed and voted on like any other warrant article. This spring, four citizens’ petitions are slated to be presented at Town Meeting.

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