According to state law, town meetings in Vermont are governed by Robert’s Rules of Order (although a town may adopt some other rules of order if it chooses). These rules are amended by several additional state laws, including:
• Only warned articles can be considered at Town Meeting. No articles or subjects may be raised that did not appear on the warning.
• Once an article has been decided, whether voted up or down, it cannot be reconsidered after the assembly has taken up work on another article; for an article to be reconsidered a new warning and meeting are required.
• While Robert’s Rules require a majority vote to request a paper ballot, state law permits seven voters to request one.
Robert’s Rules of Order is available in paperback and is published in various editions. You may wish to buy and read the latest edition; you can even bring your copy to town meeting, and use it to raise issues of procedure with the Moderator.
Don’t worry! If you’re not familiar with Robert’s Rules, don’t let that keep you home from town meeting. Most of the discussion methods are common sense, and the Moderator is trained to lead the group through all procedures. What’s most important is your participation. If in doubt, just raise your hand and ask.
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Basic Parliamentary Motions: A Quick Look
Discussion and decision making at Town Meeting are based on motions, which set the assembly into action. Here are some basic motions and common phrases you will hear at Town Meeting:
The Main Motion
Example: “I move to accept Article 6 as written.” Each article on the warning must be “moved” and seconded; it is then ready to be discussed by the group. In discussion, citizens raise their hands and are called on by the Moderator. When you are called on, stand up, state your name, then speak your mind.
“Amending” a motion means proposing a change to the motion. Example: An article is moved and seconded; then, during discussion, someone says “I move to amend Article 17 by reducing the dollar amount from $10,000 to $5,000.” After someone seconds this, debate shifts to discussing this amendment. Once people have discussed the amendment, the Moderator puts the amendment to a vote. If the voters reject the amendment, the group now returns to discussing the original main motion. If voters approve the amendment, the discussion focuses on the main motion as amended.
After the group deliberates on a motion and the Moderator feels all points of view have been heard, s/he will call for a voice vote. If you are in favor of the motion, you will say “aye.” If opposed, say “No” or “Nay.” The Moderator will then announce the results of the vote. Another forms of voting you may expect to see at town meeting is a show of hands or a standing vote. This may be asked for if the Moderator feels the voice vote was too close to call, or if a voter disagrees with the Moderator after the results of a voice vote is announced. And for any vote, any voter may move that the vote be taken via paper ballot; if seven voters support this motion, pieces of paper will be distributed and each voter writes their vote. Sometimes a checklist and a ballot box are used in this method; sometimes tellers simply collect the ballots and count them on a table in front of the room.
Point of Order / Appeal
If you don’t understand a ruling of the Moderator, speak up, saying “Point of order, Mr. (or Ms.) Moderator.” After the Moderator recognizes you, ask your question.
If at any time you disagree with a ruling of the Moderator, you may appeal his or her decision. The Moderator is obligated to ask the assembly, “Shall the Moderator’s decision be sustained?” If a majority of voters say “no,” the Moderator’s ruling is overturned.
Sometimes it becomes clear to voters that they don’t want to vote “yes” or “no” on an article; they would prefer not to vote on the article (main motion) at all. Traditional Vermont Town Meeting practice calls this a motion to “pass over” the article; if offered after a main motion is made, a simple majority is required.
Limit or Cut Off Debate
If voters feel that debate on a certain article could go on all night if some control mechanism were not in place, someone might move to limit debate, say to a total of twenty minutes. If two thirds of the voters agree, debate can be so limited. In a case where debate has gone on long enough—voters have made up their minds but some people are still repeating the basic arguments—a voter could move to cut off debate, also referred to as “calling the question.” Once moved and seconded, calling the question is a non-debatable motion. If you agree that all voices have been heard and you are ready to vote on the issue at hand, you should vote in favor of calling the question. However, if you want to continue discussion, you should vote against calling the question. Two thirds of the group must vote yes on calling the question in order to cut off debate; otherwise, discussion continues.
Remember that citizens have come to the meeting to speak and to hear each other’s viewpoints. In most cases, it is not necessary either to limit or cut off debate; the Moderator will simply call for a vote when s/he feels that all points of view have been heard. This avoids having to vote on calling the question.
A Note About Proper Amendments
Remember that a Town Meeting can’t take up an issue unless it is warned. The same general principle applies to amendments. You can’t take an article to buy a truck and amend it to buy a road grader, because the amendment raises a subject that hasn’t been warned. For the same reason, you can’t convert an article to raise money by taxes to an article to borrow money to pay something.
Amendments must be germane to the motion they seek to amend: amendments must relate to the motion. An amendment cannot introduce a new and independent question or raise an issue (disguised as an amendment) previously decided by the assembly.
Adapted from “The Meeting Will Come To Order,” distributed by the Vermont Institute for Government.
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Remote Town Meeting Participation
In Middlesex, you can participate in town meeting even if you are homebound due to illness, or abroad in the military.
Since 2008, volunteers on the Solutions Committee have made it possible for Middlesex voters in remote locations to participate in town meeting. The goal of this project is to allow participation by those who physically cannot attend (for instance, due to mobility issues or because they are out of town due to public service) while maintaining an efficient and vibrant town meeting for those who are in the meeting room.
Via phone and internet, remote participants are able to see and be seen, hear and speak to the assembly from afar, and vote in show-of-hands and voice votes. No experience is necessary, and volunteers are glad to help with any equipment or set-up needs.
As far as we know, Middlesex is unique in Vermont in offering this service. We are proud to break new ground in democratic accessibility, while working to maintain the face-to-face town meeting that Middlesex residents value. If you would like to use this free service, please contact the Town Meeting Solutions Committee (see contacts).
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Civility: It’s Not Just Robert’s Rules
Making democracy work in our community is more than a process of showing up and playing by the written rules. It’s also a matter of working respectfully with our neighbors to define our common interests. Some Middlesex residents have expressed that they are “turned off” or even frightened by town meeting and other public discussions, because they dislike uncivil discourse. It might only take one unpleasant experience to lose a citizen’s valuable participation for life. What are some of the ways we can help our town succeed? A few reminders:
Listen Actively. When others are speaking, stay engaged. Try not to tune out in order to formulate your response; instead, work to find the underlying meaning of the speaker’s words. You may find out you have more in common than you think.
Speak respectfully. Conflict is a natural part of life, and it’s good common sense to be constructive in our confrontations. At points of conflict, stay away from personalities, and stay focused on the issue and possible solutions.
Ask questions. If someone isn’t being clear, they’ll be glad you gave them a chance to clarify themselves. And if it’s the process that confuses you, chances are at least one other person is wondering about it, too. Raise your hand and ask.
Use your imagination. Usually, there is an answer out there that meets the most important needs of the diverse parties.
Celebrate and appreciate your neighbors. Perhaps one of the nicest sights at the end of a town meeting is two people who were on opposite sides of a debate shaking hands and chatting. Participation takes work, and we can all appreciate those who care enough to speak out about our community.
Keep your sense of humor. After all, Vermonters are known for it.