TOWNSEND -- During Town Meeting you can get up on the floor and say what your beliefs are. "It's democracy in real life. It's cool."
Selectman Sue Lisio was one of the proponents of direct town government in an explanation of how Town Meeting works at "Introduction to Your Local Government" on Oct. 11 at Memorial Hall.
It is important to understand what your government is all about, she said.
Lisio, Town Moderator Gene Rauhala and Town Administrator Andy Sheehan talked about some of the ins and outs of Townsend's processes.
Town Meeting is like a meeting of the Legislature, "a body of people that come and vote," Lisio said.
"You actually pass the laws, and I think that's really cool," she said.
The Board of Selectmen is similar to the governor's office. They set priorities and the hows and whys of what will be voted on, she said.
The Finance Committee is similar to the ways and means committee. "They're an advisory board, but it's you guys who vote," she said to the residents in attendance.
"I'd actually say this is the purest form of democracy. You're governing the actual municipality you live in," Rauhala said of Town Meeting.
Townsend's meetings usually go very smoothly, he said. The warrant, containing the articles to vote on, is well-prepared. The residents who come to the meeting are well-informed.
"As (previous moderator Ed West) suggested, the foremost job of the moderator is to make the meetings go as
He keeps the speakers on point and assures the procedural rules governing Town Meeting are followed, he said.
It can become confusing for someone new to the meeting, the moderator said.
Sometimes it takes a majority vote, sometimes a two-thirds votes and sometimes even a nine-tenths vote for an article to pass. Once an article has been voted on, it can be reconsidered later in the meeting under some conditions.
Rauhala's job is to keep all this straight. The rules are determined by general bylaws and the Town Meeting Time, published by the Massachusetts Moderators Association, he said.
Some of the rules governing Townsend's government come from the home rule charter, similar to a constitution for the town, Sheehan said.
Most towns have a charter and it must be approved by the state Legislature. The charter also specifies which boards and officials are elected and which are appointed, he said.
By law, the annual Town Meeting is held the first Tuesday in May and special Town Meetings are called as needed, Sheehan said.
"The annual operating budget is one of the most important things that happens at the annual Town Meeting," he said.
The selectmen, Finance Committee and department heads all play a prominent role in preparing the budget, he said. Town Meeting votes on subsections of the budget.
The budget is constrained by Proposition 2 1/2, which went into effect in 1981, he said. Under the state law, taxes can only be increased by 2 1/2 percent each year.
In addition to property taxes, the main source of revenues for the town, other sources of funds are local aid from the state, local receipts such as excise taxes and fees, and a broad category that includes money that is already "in the bank," Sheehan said.
An audience member questioned how many times an issue can be brought to a vote by calling Town Meetings or elections.
A special town election is scheduled for Nov. 3 for an override vote to cover an increase in the North Middlesex Regional School budget.
A special Town Meeting will be scheduled after this election to amend the budget approved in the spring. The wording of the articles in the meeting will be dependent on the vote taken at the election.
Twice this year, the override was defeated in Townsend.
There is no legal limit on the number of times something can be brought back, Sheehan said.
"There comes a time when it is too late in the year. Once we hit December, we really can't have an override," he said.
"There is too much uncertainty. We have to set our tax rate," Sheehan said.
Another informational meeting is scheduled for Oct. 30 to discuss the school override, Lisio said.
At the end of the meeting, participants had a chance to be heard when Lisio asked why more people did not attend Town Meeting.
People shared ideas ranging from lack of parking and difficulty driving at night and staying home to watch it live on television.
Others said newcomers to direct town government who were used to a representative-type of government did not know how important one person can be at Town Meeting. Another said the signage to announce the meeting was not sufficient.