The basic unit of government in New England is the city or town. A distinctive characteristic of town government is the Town Meeting, in which the traditional powers of the legislative branch of the government is vested–the power to make laws (called bylaws) and the power of the purse. Harvard has been so governed since its incorporation in 1732. A five-member Board of Selectmen serves as the Town’s executive body.
The Selectmen are authorized to call Town Meetings. As stipulated in the bylaws, they set the dates for the required Annual Town Meeting and any Special Town Meetings, and they control the Warrant containing the articles that will be considered at each meeting. All citizens have the right to petition for a Special Town Meeting and to put articles in the Warrant for any Town Meeting.
Citizens who wish to exercise their petition rights must obtain valid legal signatures. These are signatures of resident, registered voters, accompanied by official local street addresses as filed with the Town Clerk.
All fundamental town business is transacted at the Annual Town Meeting, traditionally held on the last Saturday in March. At this forum, townspeople exchange opinions as they attempt to determine the town’s direction and the amount of money to be raised by taxes to fund town services. All registered voters of the Town of Harvard may participate; nonregistered visitors may attend but may not vote. Anyone recognized by the Moderator may speak.
The Warrant is the agenda for Town Meeting. It is drawn up by the Selectmen and must be posted by the Constable seven days before Annual Town Meeting (14 days before a Special Town Meeting). In Harvard, the posting traditionally is at the Town Hall and at the Harvard and Still River Post Offices.
The Warrant states the time and place of the meeting and the business (articles) to be addressed. The Town’s operating expenses for the next fiscal year (July 1 to June 30) are listed in a single article called the Omnibus Budget. First-time or nonrecurring expenses are described in separate articles. At all Town Meetings, the Moderator will allow only business that is on the Warrant. However, motions for recognition, thanks and such matters may be offered for consideration.
Articles may be proposed by a town committee or inserted by the Selectmen or by a citizen petition to the Selectmen. The petition must be signed by at least ten registered voters. All articles and petitions must be submitted to the Selectmen well in advance of publication of the Warrant; deadlines are decided by the Selectmen.
The order of consideration of the articles is determined by the Selectmen who prepare the Warrant. Articles are considered and acted upon in the order in which they appear. The Moderator has the power to change the order without the approval of voters, but only for good cause. The meeting itself always has the power to change the order; the Moderator entertains motions from the floor for this purpose.
Articles Submitted by Petition for Annual Town Meeting
A properly worded petition with ten legal signatures requires the Selectmen to insert that article in the Warrant. Such an article must be submitted before the closing of the Warrant on the date the Selectmen specify.
The standard wording is:
- “The undersigned registered voters of the Town of Harvard, acting pursuant to Chapter 39, Section 10, and Chapter 40A, Section 5, of the General Laws, hereby request the insertion of the following article in the Warrant for the [Annual or Special] Town Meeting of [date].”
- “Article [will be given a number] To see if the Town will vote to…[insert wording] …or pass any vote or votes in relation thereto.”
The wording of any article is important. It determines and limits the scope of possible action. Specific amounts of money, means of financing, period of time covered, term of office and any other specific details determine the action requested of the Town.
It is advisable to consult the Moderator before the Town Meeting so that the purpose of the motion (article) to be presented is thoroughly understood by the presiding officer.
If the article requires town funds, further language stating appropriation, transfer or borrowing from available funds must be added. The Finance Committee should be consulted.
Advice may be sought from Town Counsel (with approval of the Selectmen) or from the Massachusetts Attorney General (see page 9) as to specific wording and legality of articles.
Special Town Meeting
A Special Town Meeting may be called by the Selectmen with the properly posted notice, 14 days before the date of the meeting.
Citizens requesting a Special Town Meeting must submit a petition with 200 legal signatures. This petition must be submitted to the Selectmen at one of their regular meetings allowing enough time for both their consideration and the posting of official notice, 14 days before the meeting is to take place. Check the deadline for getting on the Selectmen’s agenda with the Executive Secretary. The Selectmen are required to hold such a Special Town Meeting within 45 days of receiving the petition.
Citizens wishing to insert an article in a Special Town Meeting warrant must obtain 100 legal signatures on a petition. The petition is to be filed with the Selectmen before the closing date of the Warrant for the meeting. Articles at a Special Town Meeting to raise and appropriate money can be voted only if the tax rate has not been set. If the tax rate has been set, any money articles have to be either borrowings or transfers from available funds. Wording for Special Town Meeting articles is the same as above, with the word “Special” substituted for “Annual.”
All articles voted at Town Meeting are reviewed by the Attorney General to ensure statutory compliance. They do not become effective until after the approval process is completed. Address: Assistant Attorney General for Municipal Law, Governmental Bureau, One Ashburton Place, Boston, MA 02108. (617) 727-2200.
The Director of the Bureau of Accounts may review all proposed borrowing in advance of the Town Meeting, but those voted at the meeting must be sent for approval within 48 hours following the meeting. Address: Director of Bureau of Accounts, Department of Revenue, 100 Cambridge Street, Boston, MA 02204. (617) 727-4401. The decision of these state officials as to the legality and conformity to state statutes is binding.
The Town Report is a comprehensive record of all Town activities. It is published by the Selectmen and is available in March of each year from their office. It contains the reports of all Town officials, departments and committees; the names of Town officials and their compensation; detailed accounts of all Town receipts and expenditures; exact wording of all articles and the action taken and count of votes and the results of all elections of that year.
Finance Committee Report
By statute, the Finance Committee reviews all budget and Warrant article requests and then, with particular attention given to articles involving money, submits its recommendations to the Town Meeting. The report also analyzes trends in the Town’s finances, predicting capital expenditures and making recommendations for meeting the financial needs of the Town, to help voters make informed decisions at Town Meeting. In Harvard, this report accompanies the Annual Town Meeting Warrant.