The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action

By Joseph F. Zimmerman | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

The Massachusetts Open Town Meeting

The town meeting is the distinguishing feature of town government in Massachusetts and is sanctioned by the constitution of the Commonwealth, which dates to 1780:

The people have a right, in an orderly and peaceable manner, to assemble to consult upon the common good; give instructions to their representatives, and to request of the legislative body, by way of addresses, petitions, or remonstrances, redress of the wrongs done them, and of the grievances they suffer. 1

The open town meeting, which developed as a primary assembly of freemen during the 1630s (see Chapter 2), remains fundamentally the same today as the local law-making body in 84 percent of the towns; its trappings have changed little. The development of the finance committee as a valuable adjunct represents the most important change in the town meeting structure in these towns (for town organization, see Appendix II).

Massachusetts currently has 312 towns and thirty-nine cities. Two hundred and sixty-two towns hold open town meetings, forty-two towns hold representative or limited town meetings, five towns have a town manager and a town council, and four towns have a mayor and a town council. The towns with a council in effect have become cities but have retained the term ‘‘town.’’

To collect data, a questionnaire was mailed in 1996 to each town with an open town meeting. Responses were received from 170 towns (65%), but not every respondent answered each question. Interviews also were conducted with a number of town clerks, town meeting moderators, and knowledgeable citizens, and public reports and newspaper accounts of numerous meetings were examined.

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The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Tables and Figures ix
  • Preface xi
  • Acknowledgments xiii
  • Chapter 1 - Law-Making by Assembled Citizens 1
  • Chapter 2 - Genesis of the Town Meeting 15
  • Chapter 3 - The Massachusetts Open Town Meeting 27
  • Chapter 4 - The New Hampshire Open Town Meeting 59
  • Chapter 5 - The Vermont Open Town Meeting 83
  • Chapter 6 - The Maine Open Town Meeting 103
  • Chapter 7 - The Connecticut Open Town Meeting 117
  • Chapter 8 - The Rhode Island Financial Town Meeting 129
  • Chapter 9 - The Representative Town Meeting 139
  • Chapter 10 - Democratic Law-Making 163
  • Appendix I 195
  • Appendix II 197
  • Appendix III 199
  • Appendix IV 207
  • Bibliography 213
  • Index 229
  • About the Author 233
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