Credit: George Danby

March marks the dawn of town meeting season. That means the system of government observed by more than 400 Maine municipalities is now underway. Here are some things every voter should know about the process.

Though a town meeting can cover a wide range of subjects — from taxes to trash, from dog barking to cell phone tower height — it still has to follow an agenda. In town meetings, this is called a “warrant.” This is typically drawn up by selectpersons. It must be posted at least seven days before the meeting. Items on the warrant are referred to as “articles.” If the subject you want to discuss isn’t in an article, you can’t discuss it.

The precise wording of a town meeting article is not cast in concrete, however. Voters can tweak it even during the course of the meeting. This most often occurs in appropriation articles where motions can usually be made to change the amount to be spent. Other articles can also be modified a bit. An article that asks if the town will appoint a five member budget committee can be amended to increase its size to nine. The ability to amend an article, however, subject to limits. The same article on creating a budget committee could not be amended to see if the town would appoint a transportation committee instead. That’s because to do so would change the essence of what’s being voted upon.

The town meeting allows and encourages speaking. Voters don’t necessarily show up to make arguments or score points. They can be there to ask questions. To be sure, such questions can be as “loaded” as those posed by opposition leaders to British prime ministers in “Question Time,” but usually they are non-adversarial. In either case, the answer to some questions can be found in the widely distributed annual town report. The town meeting does allow a give-and-take interaction for which the sterile format of a government publication are often no substitute.

When you do speak, make sure you can be heard. The high ceiling gymnasiums where town meetings often occur are built for basketball. They are less than ideal for speaking. Use the microphone if one’s available.

If you feel the discussion has gone on long enough, you can bring things to a halt by “moving the question.” If such a motion is made and seconded, then a vote on whether to end debate has to be taken immediately. If two-thirds agree, then the subject under discussion must then be voted upon.

There comes a point in almost every town meeting where many people may not understand precisely what’s going on — particularly if there’s a proposed amendment. Though it’s the presiding officer’s or “moderator’s” job to help explain this, sometimes he or she will assume voters understand what’s happening even when many of them don’t. If this is the case, simply stand up and ask.

The town meeting carries the First Amendment freedom of speech a big leap forward. It isn’t just a public hearing where you are merely allowed to talk. It’s where voters themselves make the decisions. They usually do this by either a “voice” or “show of hands” vote. If the moderator is in doubt, the moderator may call for a “standing” vote, in which those in favor are first asked to stand up and subsequently those opposed asked to do the same. Occasionally, both voter privacy and the closeness of the outcome suggest a written ballot. Pieces of paper can then be handed out and voters asked to then deposit in a ballot box their “yes” or “no” choice on the issue.

Detailed manuals and columns like this one can only say so much about what happens at a town meeting. Find out for yourself by attending one.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney who has moderated over 200 town and school district budget meetings in 16 different towns and school districts in Franklin and Somerset counties in the last 35 years. He is the brother of Gov. Janet Mills.