If you have never lived in New England, you must be wondering what happens at annual town meetings and how you can take part.
In this March 5, 2022, file photo, residents vote on articles at the Minot Town Meeting held at the Minot Consolidated School in Minot. Credit: Andree Kehn / Sun Journal via AP

So, you’re new to Maine and live in a municipality that has an annual town meeting sometime between March 1 and June 30.

If you have never lived in New England before, you must be wondering what happens at one and how you can take part. It’s pretty easy, actually.

You must be registered to vote and you must show up at the appointed time and place.

Most meetings are held on weekday evenings or Saturdays. Venues can include the municipal building, a school or the local snowmobile club.

Most towns still use the town meeting form of government, according to the Maine Municipal Association.

This form of government has been in play since Colonial times. Townspeople decide on budgets and taxes directly, rather than elect people to make those decisions for them.

More populous communities, including Portland, Bangor, Augusta, Lewiston and others, operate on the city council/manager model, where residents elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf.

Those communities do not hold traditional annual town meetings.

There is no quorum required at town meetings in Maine. Whether five or 500 voters attend, the meeting is conducted in the same manner — people vote by a show of hands or saying “yeah” or “nay” to a question.

Some town clerks issue two different colored cards — one for “yes,” the other for “no” — that voters hold in the air. This makes it easier for the counters to tally votes.

The body can decide by majority vote — which is how almost all votes are decided — to require a secret ballot on some items, as Orrington did when it rejected a proposal for a public safety building in December 2018. Voters approved a  scaled down version of the building by secret ballot in June 2019.

People who do not live in a municipality may attend its annual town meeting but may not vote.

The election of town officials and school board members usually is held by secret ballot a day or two before the town meeting. But some communities still hold those elections during town meetings by allowing nominations from the floor and a public vote of those in attendance.

Items voted on at town meetings may include the annual municipal and school budgets, major purchases such as new fire trucks, ambulances or police cruisers, hiring additional personnel or making a part-time position full time.

Some town charters require voters to approve expenditures over a certain dollar amount, so it would not be unusual for attendees to vote on spending $5,000 to fix the roof of a salt shed.

Town meetings have a vocabulary all their own. The official piece of paper that lists the order of business and what items are to be voted on is called the “warrant.” Items to be voted on are “articles.” Most articles include the amount of money that can be spent.

Before the internet, warrants were posted at town offices, local stores, churches, grange halls and other gathering places, and published in local newspapers.

Today, the easiest way to read a warrant is to visit the municipality’s website or Facebook page. By law, warrants must be made available at least seven days before the meeting. Attendees at the meeting may not introduce items not on the warrant.

But the town’s governing body, whether that is a board of selectmen or a town council, must vote on and sign the final version of the warrant. That vote is usually taken from two to four weeks prior to the town meeting.

Attending the governing board’s session, or watching it online if that is an option, is a good way to learn about the warrant’s contents prior to the annual meeting.

The first order of business at most town meetings is to elect a moderator. Some towns require that person to live in the community and others require the moderator not live in town. Often, the moderator is the attorney who handles the municipality’s legal matters or a retired public official familiar with parliamentary procedure.

Once the moderator is elected, that person will run the town meeting, introducing articles one at a time, unless the body decides to combine articles addressing similar topics, such as repairs or upgrades to municipal or school buildings.

For example, instead of voting individually on articles for a new boiler, roof or well at the local school, those items could be combined and voted on just once.

Attendees may ask questions about articles when recognized by the moderator, but they must identify themselves by name and, often, address.

Some towns do not allow nonresidents to speak at annual meetings unless the body votes to let that person speak. That means if the fire chief lives in a neighboring town, that person can’t answer questions about the article to buy a new fire truck unless voters agree to allow it.

Attendance at town meetings waxes and wanes and the process can take anywhere from 20 minutes to all day to complete, depending on how many controversial items are on the agenda and how many people want to voice their opinions.

The 2021 town meeting in Hermon, population 6,461 in the 2020 census, drew fewer than 20 people to the council chambers and it was over in less than 30 minutes. The big ticket article was the purchase of a new fire truck. Firefighters who live in Hermon showed up to vote for the new piece of equipment, but it was of little interest to a majority of voters.

Last year, a controversy over the school budget drew more than 100 people who packed into a bay of the fire station. That meeting lasted three hours, and voters rejected the budget recommended by the Hermon School Committee by two votes.

Sometimes, it’s hard for people new to a community to know if their first town meeting is going to be controversial. A hint might be if there’s a sheriff’s deputy or a police officer at the back of the room. That might mean town officials are taking a precautionary step to maintain civility.

The best way to prepare for your town meeting is to read the warrant before you get there, and if you have questions, write them down and be concise when addressing the moderator.

Few meetings include a potluck meal these days, so taking something to drink and a snack might be a good idea.