The language of Town Meeting — constables and articles and warrants — comes straight from the earliest days of democracy in North America. The archaic language is awkward to decipher, as is the whole Town Meeting process. But it does help remind the community of the continuity of citizen participation in town decisions.
Tonight, 254 Town Meeting members will gather in a special session at Town Hall to vote on 16 articles, (issues up for vote) contained in the current warrant (the agenda for the meeting). Topics range from funding sewer improvements to adopting higher requirements for energy efficiency in some new buildings to a review of long-standing noncriminal offenses such as fines for sledding in the streets and rules for grazing cows.
Even longtime residents of Needham can be uncertain about how the town government is structured and how Town Meeting fits in. Essentially, Town Meeting serves as the legislative body for the community, voting on expenditures and policies. Each member represents about 90 registered voters in Needham. The Select Board, made up of five elected persons, serves as the executive body, implementing the decisions of Town Meeting and overseeing the professional staff of the various town departments. The Finance Committee does the hard work of building the town budget, understanding revenue and expenditures and making recommendations on those articles that involve finance, making it critical to the Town Meeting process.
Running a town like Needham, says Moderator Michael Fee, takes a huge amount of volunteer commitment by the residents. In addition to the hundreds of Town Meeting members, there are 13 elected committees and positions and an array of appointed committees. With the exception of a $1500 stipend for Select Board members ($1800 for the chair), none of the residents who set the priorities and policies for the operation of the town are paid. Tax dollars are one huge contribution to keeping the community running. Time, concern and engagement are other ways Needham residents contribute.
This month’s special meeting is not the big annual meeting, which is held in May, at which the budget is submitted and approved. It’s a smaller meeting that updates the budget in process and addresses issues that have arisen during the year. Any Needham resident can propose adding an article to a meeting’s warrant by collecting 10 signatures (100 at a special meeting) in support and submitting it to the Select Board, which also serves as the Warrant Committee.
Most of the articles on the October agenda were submitted by the Select Board, often at the request of Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick and her staff. Others were submitted by the Finance Committee. For two of the articles, the Finance Committee’s review led it to recommend that Town Meeting members vote no.
At the meeting, Moderator Michael Fee will conduct business according to meeting rules designed to keep consistency and decorum. As each article is addressed, proponents and opponents will have the opportunity to state their positions. Town Meeting members and residents attending the meeting will have the chance to speak. Items that members do not see the need to discuss, such as small budget reconciliations, will be moved right to the consent calendar. Then the voting starts, first with a voice vote, and if the results are not clear, a counted vote.
In the end, 254 elected neighbors will have given town officials the authority and the budget to proceed. At a time when many see democracy as imperiled, this small version of it will continue its 300-year run.
A moment with the Moderator
Having presided over Town Meeting for 27 years, moderator Michael Fee has earned the right to a historical perspective. The Observer asked him about his experiences, concerns — and dreams.
What would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of having so much volunteer direction and oversight in running the town?
I believe that people should have a say in what happens in their lives. By having the volunteer system, we present opportunities for residents of this town to take an active role in shaping what happens. And that to me is a great advantage. It’s both an advantage and a challenge because there’s a constant need for good volunteers, and there is a belief that life is busier and more complicated these days. Historically, people always made time for this, right? They always made time for their town and their community.
There’s also a perception that because we have a volunteer system of government, there’s too much process. People think it might be better if we could just make decisions and move on. But to me that’s not a disadvantage. There’s a little inefficiency in the volunteer system, but that’s a good thing. It bears out that old quote about democracy being the worst system except for all the rest. Process means there’s the ability to participate. You have a chance to influence what gets decided. There are lots of places in this world where decisions are made by people who really couldn’t care less about what the citizenry says. And we don’t have that.
In all the years you’ve been moderating, are there any meetings or votes that stand out as real turning points for the town?
There was one year when there were proposed revisions to our charter that would have fundamentally changed the way we have our volunteer input. It would have changed the budget process, changing or eliminating the Finance Committee. Town Meeting kept in place some of the checks and balances that are important for our town. That was a turning point.
You’re a supporter of the Finance Committee, even though it occasionally recommends against Select Board articles.
I’m looking for an objective assessment. What is in the best interest of the taxpayers and residents of our town? I chaired the Finance Committee under the former moderator, so I’ve lived it. You try to reach consensus on issues, but the Finance Committee recommends what’s best in their view for the town.
What do you see as the big issues facing the town over the next three to five years?
One is deciding what to do with increased tax revenue. The construction and the reconstruction of homes has increased revenue to levels that have never been seen before. When I was on the Finance Committee, we had real crunches. Now we have considerable money going into stabilization funds. Is that the best use of that revenue, or should we be doing something more immediate now?
I also think the affordability of housing is another major challenge. We meet the legal thresholds for affordable housing, but that doesn’t mean the job is over. In order to be a vibrant community, Needham has to have a diverse and disparate population in every way, but particularly economically.
Another challenge for our town going forward is to maintain the system we’ve discussed today. We have to remind people of what a gift this system is because all around us communities are abandoning the Town Meeting systems and changing to town managers, or town councils and mayors: Bridgewater, Randolph, Winthrop, Palmer have all changed. Weymouth had the oldest Town Meeting in the commonwealth, and they voted it out.
You really appreciate the history of Town Meeting, the continuity of it. If you could time travel, do you think you could walk into a Town Meeting of 200 years ago and moderate it?
This might sound immodest, but I think I could. Parliamentary procedure has evolved but some of our precedent for those procedures go back. I’ve looked at some of the warrants from the old days. It would be kind of fun to talk about a bylaw about whether or not you can bring your pigs to the town common and allow them to graze. I think I could moderate one of those meetings. I think it would be fun.