New England or ‘Open’ Town Meetings – Participedia

New England or ‘Open’ Town Meetings are public forums that promote participation in local governance. Town meetings allow residents to voice their opinions on public issues and deliberate and vote on laws and budgets. “Proponents of the town assembly emphasize that it is the purest form of democracy that ensures that all policy decisions are in the public interest since no intermediaries are placed between the voters and the public decisions.”[1] In this regard, it differs slightly from Representative Town Meetings which also have a long history in New England. Unlike the Representative Town Meeting, the New England format allows any and all citizens to directly deliberate and vote on legislation. As such, state historian Christopher Collier has called it “the most democratic form of government one can imagine. It’s the closest to the people, it involves the largest number of people, it’s the most open.”[2] In more recent decades, the integration of information and communications technologies like Audience Response Systems has allowed the New England Town Meeting format to maintain relevance in the 21st Century ‘digital age’. 

The purpose of the New England Town Meetings is to include registered voters of the community to decide new laws and budgets in a town forum. In more modern times, New England Town Meetings have suffered a drop in attendance attributable to the increase in town size and a decrease in the number and variety of political issues under local control. While their purpose continues to be the granting of an open, impartial forum for public opinion, John Gastil notes that meetings are less ‘open’ than they used to be; composed primarily of stakeholders and invited guests, participants often “simply tell committee members what they want to hear.”[3] 

Town meetings have been ongoing since that time in Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and a few other New England states. Some states or communities – like Amherst, Massachusetts – adopted or transitioned to/from the Representative Town Meeting model.

New England or ‘Open’ Town Meetings – Participedia