This column from a Lexington, MA paper gives an overview and history of the town meeting form of direct democracy in Lexington. The practice is widespead throughout New England and has it's origins in colonial times- Editor
Scene and Herd: Town Meeting has a long, involved history
Thu Mar 20, 2008, 06:27 AM EDT
Many residents of Lexington may still not know all there is to know about the Town Meeting form of government. So, since the annual March session began yesterday, perhaps it might be time to talk of the history of this ancient tradition.
A person has a sense of awe and history if elected to Town Meeting in a community such as Lexington. You become one of 189 members exercising direct democracy in action. There are nine precincts in town and you are one of 21 representatives from your precinct. The number of elected representatives is determined by each town.
Lexington was settled in 1642. The first Town Meeting was held in 1692, as soon as there were enough land-owning men, the only villagers who were eligible to vote. This was when the village was still called Cambridge Farms. It became the incorporated village of Lexington in 1713, and six days later held it first Town Meeting as Lexington.
Like those in other small- to medium-sized towns all over New England, Town Meetings were instituted early on and became a tradition that continues to the present day. Depending on the size and wishes of each town, some have open forums like neighboring Weston and Concord that include all registered voters at their meetings. Others have a representative form like Lexington that was voted into existence in 1929, and convened in 1930. Lexington now has a population of about 31,000 people.
Town Meeting is the legislative body of the town. It has sole authority to appropriate funds for the operating budget and capital projects. It can vote on municipal budget line items and adopt, amend, or repeal bylaws, including all those related to zoning. Like any good legislative body, it holds the purse strings. And there is always lively discussion.
With the exception of the town moderator who is elected every year, all other officers are elected to three-year terms. These include the Board of Selectmen, School Committee, Planning Board, and Lexington Housing Authority. None has an acknowledged political association. The town manager is appointed by the Board of Selectmen.
The town moderator, selectmen, or town manager appoint major town committees and officers for three-year terms. These include the Appropriation, Capital Expenditures, Permanent Building, Recreation, and Lexington 2020 Vision Committees, Historical, Conservation and Historic Districts Commissions, Personnel Advisory Board, Board of Registrars, Board of Health, Board of Appeals, and the town clerk. All, including lesser committees, have their own specific purposes.
When women acquired the right to vote in 1920, they began to take an interest in their town government. They successfully ran for Town Meeting in 1930 and have now become members and chairmen of major committees. There are 83 women of the 189 Town Meeting members and there are 106 men. Three of the nine at-large members are women. A woman presently serves as chairman of the Board of Selectmen and the woman town moderator has held that office for 21 years.
One of the unique aspects of Lexington’s Town Meeting is its Town Meeting Members Association, or TMMA. Started in the 1930s, the unofficial TMMA continues to thrive and is unusual among towns in the state. Each precinct has three representatives that make up the TMMA Board. They are: clerk, vice-chair, and chair. These 27 plan a series of TMMA Warrant Information Meetings at which questions about forthcoming warrant articles are raised and answered.
The hope is to educate all Town Meeting members on the forthcoming issues upon which they will eventually vote. Written material is available for members to study.
Over the years, Town Meeting membership has become a much more sophisticated and time-consuming job. Today, it faces the complications of a town government that must meet the times and challenges of the 21st century. The recent election had no direct competition for major offices. However, there were competitions in some of the precincts with new candidates unseating some long-time members. So the ancient tradition remains alive and competitive in our own local democracy.
Mary Lou Touart is a Lexington resident and regular columnist for the Minuteman.