Representative Town Meeting - An Alternate Option for New Hampshire Town Governance
In February 2010, the Vermont Senate passed a bill that would allow towns in that state to implement a representative town meeting form of government (RTM). The RTM would be an alternative to a traditional open town meeting, an official ballot referendum (SB 2) meeting, or a town council. If the Vermont House passes the bill, any Vermont town with a population of at least 5,000 will be able to follow the example set by Brattleboro.
Brattleboro, Vermont (pop. 10,000) held its 50th annual representative town meeting this March. They have been able to use this form of government since 1961 under a special act of the Vermont legislature passed in 1959. As Vermont State Senator Jeanette White (D-Windham), sponsor of the current bill, has said, authorizing the RTM format allows each town to craft a representative style that best suits its needs.1 And as Annette Cappy, Brattleboro’s Town Clerk, has said, the majority of people in Brattleboro would say RTM works.2 The fact that it has endured for the past 50 years seems to bear that out.
Although RTM is still relatively unknown in New Hampshire, it is not new. Towns in other New England states have had an RTM since as early as 1915.3 As of 1999, RTM was used in 42 towns in Massachusetts, seven in Connecticut, and one town each in Maine and Vermont.4
Here in New Hampshire, towns have had the option to adopt an RTM since 1961.5 It is unclear why this option has not been used yet, but a look at how RTM works reveals that this form of government may have a lot to recommend it.
What is Representative Town Meeting?
RTM is a hybrid form of government that seeks to combine certain features of the open town meeting with a representative body. The voters delegate legislative power to a relatively large number of elected representatives, but reserve the right to attend and speak at town meetings. In addition, by means of referenda, the voters can reverse most actions of the meeting. The number of representatives is much larger than a town council, keeping the members more responsible to their small districts, and the open debate format is retained.6
The typical RTM town has a population of between 5,000 and 60,000. The town is divided into districts, and each district elects several members to the meeting. The size of districts, the number of members to be elected, and the relationship between the number of members and the number of district residents can be determined in a variety of ways through the charter adopted by the voters. Most representative town meetings have between 50 and 200 elected members who serve for staggered terms of three years each.7 In addition, there are usually several ex-officio members who also vote, typically including the selectmen, town clerk and budget committee chair.8
The same procedural rules that would govern an open town meeting generally apply to an RTM, but with some twists. At the annual meeting, the representative members gather and conduct the business of the meeting in much the same way as an open meeting. A moderator presides, and the meeting proceeds through the warrant with debate and voting on each article. Only the elected members may vote, but any registered voter may attend the meeting and participate in the debate.
However, in creating an RTM, voters do not give up all of their authority to determine town policy. First, any matter that is required to go on the official ballot by law or charter must still be put to a vote of the town as a whole.9 In other words, the voters at large still vote to elect officers, enact or amend a zoning ordinance, change the size of the board of selectmen, and do anything else that must go on the official ballot. Second, while the remainder of the articles are voted upon only by the representative members, any citizen may attend the meeting and speak on the articles. Third, the voters have the power to veto almost all actions taken by the RTM by petitioning for a referendum vote of the town as a whole.10
Comparison with Open Town Meeting and SB 2 Meeting
Open town meetings and the newer SB 2 form of town meeting each have their advantages and disadvantages. Many towns struggle with the choice of retaining the open meeting, going to an SB 2 form, or taking a bigger step to a town council form of government. However, towns in other New England states have found the RTM to be a useful compromise that addresses many of the challenges raised by the other forms of government.
According to some historians, the RTM and town council forms of government evolved to solve the problems faced by towns in which the population grew too large to accommodate the large numbers of voters who could attend an open town meeting. Problems arose finding a facility large enough to hold all the attendees, the process became cumbersome, the meetings lasted longer and genuine deliberation became difficult.11
However, as other researchers have noted, and as we may know from our own experience, attendance at town meeting is actually dropping in many towns as the population grows.12 Typically, attendance is very low among all but the smallest towns except when the warrant includes an exceptionally controversial article. In the Town of Henniker (pop. 5,000), for instance, the typical meeting is attended by 100-200 voters. This March, however, more than 500 voters packed the meeting hall for the 2010 annual meeting due to several controversial articles on the warrant. The controversy and heated debate extended the meeting far beyond its usual two or three hours, and the crowd was almost too large for the facility. Many complained that it was difficult to hear and get to the microphone, and that they did not have enough time to stay for the entire meeting. These are common complaints when the meeting attendance spikes.
In addition, as populations grow, and as state and federal regulations make town government increasingly complex, the length of the typical warrant has grown. Correspondingly, meetings typically take many more hours than they did in the past. Predictably, this leads to participant fatigue and encourages a significant number of the voters who have attended to leave the meeting early.13
In New Hampshire, the SB 2 form of government, enacted in 1995, was one attempt to address the lack of participation among voters. In an SB 2 town, the sometimes lengthy debates on individual warrant articles takes place at a deliberative session several weeks before town meeting day. The final votes on the articles do not occur until town meeting day, by official ballot in a voting booth. The theory is that more voters will participate because it is easier and faster to go to the polls and vote on everything at once than it is to sit through an entire open town meeting. While the number of voters at the polls may increase slightly, however, the results are not all positive.
A quick look at any deliberative session in an SB 2 town reveals dismal attendance (often only a few dozen voters). This means the very small minority of voters who attend this first session have tremendous power to amend and shape the articles and the budget that the rest of the town will vote on at the polls. Very few voters hear or participate in the debate on warrant articles. As a result, a number of town officers surveyed by one researcher doubted that the voters understood all of the articles they were voting on. Exit interviews in several towns confirmed that voters had difficulty understanding the language of certain articles.14 In recent years, we have also seen a dramatic increase in the number of deliberative sessions that amend warrant articles to remove all but the first two words (“to see”), rendering the article essentially meaningless and preventing the wider voting public from having any say on the article at all.
So, how might an RTM address these issues? In several ways. Virtually all RTM towns set a quorum and require at least 50 percent of the elected RTM members to attend the meeting before business can be conducted. Elected members of an RTM are typically people with the desire and commitment to attend the meeting, so obtaining a quorum has rarely been an issue. In addition, most towns provide that if a member fails to attend meetings, his or her seat can be declared vacant and filled with someone else. Research has also shown that RTM members tend to take their civic responsibility seriously and spend the time to become educated about the issues and thoughtful about their decisions.15
True Democracy or Default Representation?
Open town meeting is often referred to as the “purest form of democracy,” ensuring that all policy decisions are in the public interest with no intermediaries between voters and their decisions.16 As described by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century, town meeting brings liberty “within the people’s reach, [and] teaches men how to use and enjoy it.”17
However, the truth can be somewhat less idyllic. Low attendance means that the decisions in open town meetings are really being made by a small percentage of the voters. In essence, most of the voters hand their decision-making authority to the small, self-selected group who attend the meeting. Surveys reveal that open meeting attendees significantly over-represent the middle-aged and older voters, and that younger voters have an exceptionally low attendance rate.18 This small group represents the interests of all citizens, although no one has elected them to do so, and they are accountable to no one. As a result, the meeting may go in a direction that does not reflect the wishes of the majority because the majority has not attended. This situation is even more acute in SB 2 towns, where a few dozen voters are given authority to shape the budget and warrant articles at the deliberative session simply because no one else has bothered to attend.
In an RTM town, in contrast, representation occurs with deliberation and intent. The voters go to the polls and elect members to attend the meeting and vote on their behalf. These members usually represent a relatively small district and thus are accountable to the people who have elected them. This can result in a representative body that is much more consistently and truly representative of the voters as a whole than the haphazard, self-selected representation that occurs in an open town meeting. Those voters who wish to attend the meeting may still do so, of course, and may speak if they choose, thus helping to keep their representatives informed and preserving the opportunity for citizens to observe and participate in the debate.
Control by Interest Groups
Low attendance in general also means that a group of voters with a special interest can turn out in disproportionate numbers to “pack” the meeting and influence the outcome on specific issues. No special interest group is usually interested in all of the articles, except perhaps a taxpayers’ group interested in all articles that affect town spending. As a result, the group may attend the meeting in force, vote to move the articles of interest to the beginning of the meeting, and then leave as soon as action is taken on those articles. Research shows that overall attendance can be negatively affected by a perception (valid or not) that the meeting is controlled by a small clique or dominated by special interest groups.19
This factionalism exists in most towns and can lead to results that do not accurately reflect the wishes of the majority of voters in towns, whether through an open town meeting or an SB 2 meeting. This unfortunate result may be alleviated in an RTM town because the voting members are elected by district, not by interest group. This elected group has been said to provide more accurate representation of the voters as a whole than the chance representation that occurs in all open town meetings.20
Satisfaction with RTM
The towns using a representative town meeting have, overwhelmingly, been satisfied with it. A study of RTM towns showed that voters and town officials rated the quality of debate and decision-making by the RTM fairly high.21 The quality and quantity of debate seem to be as good as, if not better than, that of an open town meeting. “As one would anticipate, the average RTM member is better informed than the average participant in an open town meeting, thereby raising the level of debate.”22 Members tend to stay informed throughout the year and to attend committee meetings and public hearings. Debate is still alive and well in RTM towns. When asked in 2008 if there is debate at the Brattleboro RTM, the long-time moderator, Tim O’Connor, responded, “O, geez, yes. … We try to encourage people to speak no more than two minutes, but democracy says you’ve got to be fair, so we let them go until someone raises an objection.”23
One measure of the satisfaction with RTM is the longevity it has enjoyed in the towns that have adopted it. Sanford, Maine and Brattleboro, Vermont have used it since 1953 and 1961, respectively, with a few unsuccessful proposals to change to a town council. In other New England states, repeal was proposed a handful of times, but only a very few towns have done so. Most of the towns that no longer have an RTM have chosen instead to have a town council. The overall number of New England towns with an RTM has remained constant since the 1960s, with some towns moving to a town council as they grew larger and other towns going from open town meeting to RTM.24
A New Hampshire Option?
Towns across New Hampshire are searching for ways to revitalize town meeting, improve voter participation, and maintain their sense of community. Declining participation, increased complexity of issues, escalating financial pressures, increased mobility and a weakening of ties to small-town communities have all strained the open town meeting form of government.
Those around New England who have chosen the RTM form of government have found that it can strike a good balance between the pressures of modern society and the small-town democracy we all value. Meeting members represent the community in an organized, democratic way and are, on the whole, motivated and informed about the issues. Citizen participation is maintained through open and accessible debates, and the ability of voters to veto the actions of the RTM acts as a safety valve for the voters when the meeting goes astray. Towns struggling with open town meeting but wary of a town council form of government, and those which have been disappointed with the SB 2 form of government, might look to the RTM as an option. New Hampshire towns have had this option available to them for 40 years. Perhaps it is time to take another look at it.
Christine Fillmore is a staff attorney with the New Hampshire Local Government Center’s Legal Services and Government Affairs Department. For more information on this and other topics of interest to local officials, LGC’s legal services attorneys can be reached Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. by calling 800.852.3358, ext. 384, or by e-mail.
1 Chris Garofolo, “Senate Passes Rep. Town Meeting Bill,” Brattleboro Reformer, February 26, 2010. 2 Greg Elias, “Town Mulls Method to Reanimate Town Meeting,” Williston Observer.com, February 25, 2010. 3 R. Johnson, B. Trustman, C. Wadsworth, Town Meeting Time: A Handbook of Parliamentary Law (Little, Brown & Company, Inc., Boston, MA, 1962), at 6. Brookline, MA adopted RTM in 1915. 4 J. Zimmerman, The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action (Prager Publishers, Westport, CT 1999), at 139. 5 RSA Chapter 40-A (1961, 241:1). 6 Zimmerman at 139. 7 Zimmerman at 146, 157-58. 8 See, for example, RSA 49-D:3, III(c) (ex-officio members that must be included in a New Hampshire RTM). 9 RSA 49-D:3, III(a). 10 RSA 49-D:3, III(d). 11 Zimmerman at 142-43; R. Johnson et al. at 5-6. 12 Frank M. Bryan, Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2004), at 77-81. The author’s research indicates that open town meeting is best attended in very small towns, with a precipitous drop-off as population rises. See also Zimmerman at 144, 164-65. “Citizen apathy is a common charge against town meeting government and cannot be denied if attendance is a barometer of such apathy. The gravitational pull of the town meeting has been diminishing over the decades, and for sundry reasons an exceptionally large percentage of the registered voters in New England open meeting towns voluntarily abdicate power that is rightfully theirs.” 13 Zimmerman at 167. 14 Zimmerman at 76-77. 15 Zimmerman at 181. 16 Zimmerman, xi. 17 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Cambridge, Sever and Francis, 1862), at 76. 18 Zimmerman at 171. 19 Zimmerman at 171-72. 20 Zimmerman at 144. 21 Zimmerman at 156. The study, published in 1999, asked local officials and voters to rate the quality of RTM debate and decisions on a scale of “excellent, good, fair, and poor:” Approximately two-thirds rated the quality of debate and decisions as good, approximately one-third as excellent, and a tiny fraction as fair. None rated them poor. 22 Zimmerman at 182. 23 Lisa Rathke, “Brattleboro Bucks Tradition with Representative Town Meeting,” Boston.com news, March 2, 2008. 24 Zimmerman at 83, 159.