All About Bristol Town Meeting

A Voter’s Guide to Town Meeting Procedures

Since 1762, town meeting has been the basic system of governance for Vermont towns. The annual meetings are held in most towns (including Bristol) on the first Monday evening of March. Voters have an opportunity to speak, hear their neighbors, make amendments, and vote on budgets and other articles affecting the life of the municipality.

At Town Meeting, voters have an opportunity to speak, hear their neighbors, make amendments, and vote on budgets and other articles affecting the life of the municipality. The citizens act as the legislative branch of town government on issues of finance and governance. Voters of the town take binding action based on warned articles on the floor, usually after debate or discussion. Selectboards and other town officials get their marching orders on appropriations and policy. At town meeting, voters are in charge.

Here are some of the basic rules on how these meetings are conducted. Knowing how it all works is important for anyone who wants to play an active role in local democracy

Warning and Notice for Town Meeting

How do citizens find out when town meeting will be held, and what will be on the agenda? The “Warning.”

The warning and notice for town meeting are mailed to Bristol residents within the pages of the town’s Annual Report. They are also posted in a least three public places in town, including the town clerk’s office. The warning and notice announce the date, time, place, and agenda of the meeting. They also give information on voter registration, including the cut-off date for applying for addition to the checklist. If the Australian (printed paper) ballot is used (as it is to elect officers in Bristol), the warning and notice provide information about when the polls open and how to get an absentee ballot.

Getting Articles on the Warning

The warning for town meeting is prepared by the Selectboard: it includes articles proposed by the Selectboard that deal with town business. Sometimes the Selectboard will agree to include articles suggested by individual townspeople; otherwise, voters may petition to have articles added to the warning for consideration at the town meeting (as long as the subjects of the articles are not illegal, frivolous, or beyond the authority of the electorate). Petitions must be signed by five percent of the voters on the checklist. They must be submitted to the Town Clerk at least 47 days before 47 days prior to Town Meeting.

A petition should begin with the statement, “We the undersigned voters of the town, hereby petition the Selectboard to add the following article to the warning for the annual meeting.” This statement should appear on each page of the petition.

Here is a sample petition you can use: Sample Petition (PDF)

Examples of articles that might be added to the warning by petition include a request for an appropriation for a social service organization, or a proposal to change the size of the Selectboard. Petitions may also cover political subjects, but they must do so in an advisory way. For example, an article might suggest that the electorate urge the legislature to adopt or prohibit something or send a message to the United Nations expressing its position on a particular issue. Do your research well, however, keeping in mind that there are some things voters simply do not have the authority to do.

Make sure your petition has a place for each voter’s signature, printed name, and address. Get plenty of signatures (in addition to the minimum) to ensure that a sufficient number of names on your petition are legitimate voters.

Local Candidates

Serving your community in a volunteer position is a great way to help your neighbors and become vested in your town. Voters will often choose a member for the Selectboard, the Town Clerk, Treasurer, Delinquent Tax Collector, and Lister. In order to be placed on the ballot, you must submit a petition and a signed Consent of Candidate Form on or by 5 pm on the sixth Monday before the election.

The Role of the Moderator

The Town Moderator is the presiding officer at town meetings. The Moderator keeps order and ensures that the business of the meeting proceeds in a fair and efficient manner and that those who wish to have an opportunity to participate in the process. It is the Moderator’s job to put motions to a vote of the assembly and to rule on all votes and other questions of order. The Moderator serves as the central, focal point of the meeting. All motions and remarks should be addressed to the Moderator, who has the right to order an unruly voter or visitor to the meeting to withdraw, on penalty of a $200 fine. The Moderator is the first official elected after the annual town meeting convenes and serves a term of one year.

Other Business

State law explains that “The article entitled ‘other business’ shall not be used for taking binding municipal action, and the moderator shall so rule.” Some Moderators will not entertain any motion when the town gets to “other business” on the warning. Others may allow non-binding motions, such as a motion to recognize the hard work of the road crew or town meeting organizers.

Excerpted from “The Meeting Will Come To Order,” distributed by the Vermont Institute for Government.