Topsfield is governed by that unique New England institution, the Town Meeting. It is still considered one of the purest examples of democratic government. All voters present at the Annual Town Meeting:
- act as a legislative body
- vote on the budget
- authorize capital expenditures
- make, amend, or repeal the bylaws
- approve or reject changes in the administrative structure or procedures
The Town meeting also authorizes the borrowing of money and the issuing of notes or bonds. Topsfield’s Annual Town Meeting is held the first Tuesday in May in the Proctor School Auditorium. Special Town Meetings may be called throughout the year by the Selectmen or by petition of 200 or 20 percent of the registered voters, whichever number is less.
The Town Meetings are “open” or “unlimited,” that is the voters are the final authority for town affairs, unlike the voters of larger towns who elect representatives to act as their legislators.
The Warrant for the town meeting is drawn up by the Selectmen and must be publicly posted in designated places at least seven days prior to the Annual Town Meeting, and fourteen days prior to a Special Town Meeting. This document announces the date, time, and place of the meeting, and lists the articles to be discussed and voted upon. The Warrant must name the date, hours, and polling place for the town elections, which follow the Annual Town Meeting. One Topsfield bylaw requires that printed copies of the Warrant be delivered to registered voters at least seven days prior to Town meeting or election. Warrant articles may be introduced by:
- the Board of Selectmen,
- the various town boards or departments
- petition of 10 voters for Warrant articles to presented at Annual Meetings or petition of 10 percent or 100 registered voters, whichever number is lesser, for Special Town Meetings. Citizen Petition Forms Information regarding submitting a Citizen Petition
Town Meeting Procedures
As citizens enter the meeting place (Proctor School Auditorium) their names and voting eligibility are verified by the Town Clerk's staff. Those not eligible to vote are seated in a separate section.
Who's Who at Town Meeting
Certain individuals play a prominent role at Town Meeting. The Town Moderator and the Town Clerk are on the stage of the auditorium. The Selectmen sit at a table on the left side facing the audience and the Finance Committee sits at a table on the right side. The Town Constable stands near the door and works with the Town Clerk's staff who check voters in.
The Town Moderator
The Town Moderator is elected annually. According to state law, the Moderator presides over and regulates the proceedings at Town Meetings. He decides all questions of order, and makes public declaration of all "votes". Another very important task assigned the Moderator is the appointment of the members of the Town Finance Committee.
The Town Clerk is the chief election official, custodian of the Town's records and recording secretary of the meeting. She is elected every three (3) years. During Town Meeting she records the vote on each article and consults on points of order. She also makes the arrangements for Town Meeting. Anyone who wishes to show slides or make power point presentations must consult with the Town Clerk before the meeting.
Some months before Annual Town Meeting in May, the town officers, department heads, and boards each prepare separate operating and capital budgets for submission to the Finance Committee. This body's function is to scrutinize items in the department budgets; they then recommend acceptance, reduction, postponement, or elimination. The Finance Committee will endorse the amended general budget which includes all projected operating expenses. Capital expenses are similarly treated but sometimes submitted to the voters as separate articles. The Finance Committee makes a general report to Town Meeting and then speaks to each warrant article explaining why they recommend or do not recommend action on the article.
Board of Selectmen
The Board of Selectmen, as the chief administrative body of the Town, also make a general report to Town Meeting. They may or may not speak to each article, depending on the issues involved.
How to Participate in Town Meeting
To address the meeting a voter should rise, ask to be recognized by the Moderator, and state his or her name and address. He may discuss the question, make or amend a motion, pose a question of order, or ask for information. Microphones are set up throughout the auditorium. Individuals who have been recognized should go to one of these to speak. A voter may address the Moderator on any warrant article. Questions are encouraged. Amendments can be offered and will be voted on individually.
Amendments must be presented to the Moderator in writing. If you are considering making an amendment, the Moderator recommends that you speak with him in advance of Town meeting to make sure that the proposed amendment is properly worded and falls within the scope of the Warrant article in question. After discussion on the amendment, the Moderator calls for a vote on the amendment only. If passed, the original motion as amended is voted upon. Amendments to amendments will generally be ruled out of order. Motions or amendments which differ materially and are beyond the scope of those printed in the Warrant will be ruled out of order.
Unless otherwise provided, all motions require a majority vote to carry. All zoning questions require a 2/3 vote in the affirmative to carry. In Declaring the Vote the Moderator decides the sense of the meeting by a voice vote. If he is in doubt, or, if the decision is questioned, a standing vote may be called for. If seven voters question a vote, a standing vote must be taken.