The town hall in New England is the setting for a meeting that is a traditional celebration of community and an egalitarian legislative assembly of voters who make all town policy decisions. This type of meeting stands sharply in contrast to the staged gatherings some American politicians loosely call “a town hall meeting,” but at which no decisions are made.
The equivalent of a genuine town hall meeting is traceable to the age of Pericles in the city-state of Athens in the fifth century BCE and the canton of Appenzell Landsgemeinde in Switzerland in 1378. In 1630, a folkmoot, an assemblage of freemen, governed emerging towns in the Puritan-founded Massachusetts Bay Colony without authorization of the colony’s governing body, which within five years recognized them by directing named towns to initiate specific actions.
The elected board of selectpersons issues the war rant for the annual meeting typically held in the spring or for a special town meeting. The annual meeting warrant contains articles relating to the election of town officers and business matters, and voters may place articles in the war rant by petition. In many towns, a civic group hosts a meeting before the formal town meeting to discuss the warrant and to answer questions.
The elected moderator presides in an impartial and orderly manner to ensure voters understand warrant articles. Many warrant articles are routine, but others may be exceptionally controversial and necessitate an adjourned session or sessions to reach a decision on each. The amount of authority exercisable by a town hall meeting varies: Vermont grants the least functional discretionary authority, and Maine grants the broadest such authority.
Adaptations And Decline Of Town Hall Meetings
Population growth led Boston to abandon the meeting in favor of a mayor and city council in 1822. Other large Massachusetts towns followed Boston’s lead until 1915, when the General Court authorized a representative town meeting (RTM) conducted in the same manner as an open town meeting with one exception: Only elected representatives could vote. Currently, thirty-nine Massachusetts towns, six Connecticut towns, and one Vermont town have an RTM; Sanford, Maine adopted an RTM with partial authority.
Direct democracy still continues to function in each New England state. Massachusetts, for instance, has 262 towns with an open town meeting. However, voter participation has declined sharply except in the smallest towns. For example, by 1996, the average attendance at sixty New Hampshire town meetings was only 20 percent, with small towns (population below five hundred) having the highest turnout (38 percent).
Several factors have produced the decline in town hall debate and decision making. The population has become more mobile with an influx of citizens from cities and other regions of the country lacking experience with town meetings. In some cases, town officers fail to provide adequate explanations and information, compounding the integration of this new population. More options for entertainment can also distract interest from town meetings.
Disturbed by the falling attendance, a number of towns have begun providing child and elder care, expediting the processing of noncontroversial articles, and improving the efficiency of meetings through tighter moderating. Vermont was the first state to allow some towns to experiment with a form called referendum meeting (RM), held before voters cast a secret ballot on the articles in the warrant, while New Hampshire was the first state to offer all towns the option of instituting an RM. While the RM is held prior to the referendum and allows voters to raise questions, discuss war rant articles, and amend them, in the sixty-three New Hampshire towns and seventy-five school districts that have adopted it, attendance averages 3.5 percent, with town officers and committee members constituting 75 to 90 percent of the attendees. RMs have not spread beyond Vermont and New Hampshire.
Referendum town hall decisions, in theory, should have more legitimacy than ones made by a primary assembly in which a very small percentage of the voters participate. New Hampshire data reveal, however, average voter turnout at the polls varies from 27 to 30 percent. In fact, majority decisions could be made by an average of 15 to 16 percent of the voters.
The act of referendum decision making, in itself, has destroyed deliberate democracy, even though the designers included a preliminary deliberative session in an attempt to preserve this conventional feature of town meetings. The accountability of elected officers to the voters is a key tenet of democratic theory. Deliberative democracy facilitates the ability of voters to hold elected officers accountable through a face-to-face town meeting, questioning and criticisms of officers’ respective actions and inactions. The popular sentiment toward the scrutinizing role of the town meeting is lost when it is replaced by another decision-making mechanism.
- Adams, Herbert B. The Germanic Origin of New England Towns. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, 1892.
- Bryan, Frank M. Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
- Gould, John. New England Town Meeting: Safeguard of Democracy. Brattleboro, Vt: Stephen Daye Press, 1940.
- Sly, John. Town Government in Massachusetts, 1620–1930. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930.
- Zimmerman, Joseph F. The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999.
- Zimmerman, Joseph F., and Katherine M. Zuber. “Town Meeting by Referendum.” Current Municipal Problems 34, no. 2 (2007): 29–42.