Town meetings shouldn’t be a snoozer 


Updated, April 18

Town meeting is one of New England’s proudest traditions, and the most hands-on form of democracy in which Islanders can participate. Unlike voting in presidential elections, which can feel like a fait accompli in a one-party stronghold like Massachusetts, given the Electoral College, town meeting offers a chance for residents to roll up their sleeves and make real decisions. They can weigh in on sweeping challenges on the Island, like mitigation against climate change, and how to address a housing crisis, or on more micro local issues of import, from deciding the budget to regulating short-term rentals, or banning gas-powered leaf blowers, as was the case in Edgartown.

But this spring, a couple of these historic pageants of local governance have gone on far too long for one evening, and the long hours of public comment and voting on long lists of warrants have made it challenging for residents to stay focused and to make difficult and sometimes fateful decisions for the towns. 

In Edgartown, town meeting dragged on past midnight, and there was a noticeable impact on the capacity and will of voters. Some articles seemed to be postponed or rejected based not on their merits, but because voters were restless, and understandably tired. The warrant was crammed with more than 100 articles.

Edgartown voter Linda Shapiro said it well while leaving the Old Whaling Church last Tuesday: “I think, unfortunately, some of the big articles that we postponed needed to be talked about. When they come in so late in the meeting, they just get blown away.”

In West Tisbury, where there were about half the number of articles on the agenda, voters were growing anxious as town meeting pushed closer to four hours, and a discussion on short-term rental regulations extended well beyond an hour. For voters who likely have a reasonable bedtime on a weeknight, and with several more articles still to go on the warrant, some were growing impatient. And voters were quite vocal about their frustration, calling for the moderator to move the question when there were still some in the audience who wanted to propose amendments. Moderator Dan Waters, who had the patience of a saint holding the floor at town meeting, was able to keep the debate contained.

But the complaints are valid. And it isn’t just the fault of town moderators. 

The lesson learned is that towns are just trying to get too much business crammed into one evening. More than 100 articles in one night is too much. Hearing from all the voices that want to be heard on a paramount issue in West Tisbury takes time. It shouldn’t be shoehorned in with a one-night time constraint.

It’s easy for a newspaper to pontificate on ways to address the issues, and quite another for moderators and town officials to shape a thoughtful debate and allow voters to make meaningful change.

One solution could be to have time limits. As has been the case in some Massachusetts towns, extending beyond say 11 o’clock should require approval from voters on town meeting floor. If there’s only one or two articles left on the warrant, voters could decide to extend the meeting to finish up the business at hand. If not, push the meeting to a second night. 

Adding a second night has its issues. Towns are already struggling to get enough residents to get out to town meeting to make a quorum: As was the case last year, town officials told the audience in at least two town meetings to rally their friends and family to help meet the quorum. Extending town meeting to two nights could be a bridge too far, especially on back-to-back nights. But it makes more sense than rejecting or postponing articles that voters are too tired to address.

One other option is to have two town meetings a year. There would be the annual meeting in the spring, to pass town budgets and any other necessary spending articles. And then in the fall, circle back for articles that might need a more thorough discussion that residents would want to voice their opinion on — like the “party bylaw” in Edgartown, or the short-term rental debate in West Tisbury. 

Another option, which would likely be contentious and take some time to come to fruition, is electing town meeting members, known as a representative town meeting model. As is the case in some Massachusetts towns like Falmouth, not just any registered voter would be able to waltz into town meeting to debate the issues, as is the case at all Island towns now. WIth an elected body, representatives may be more inclined to show up for a second night of town meeting, or even a third. There are complications that would come with a representative town meeting, but it’s not out of the question.

Either way, meetings that extend beyond midnight, or beyond five hours, are not only a way to lose interest in town meeting for the next time around; it can also be hard to prevent patience from fraying and tempers from flaring as residents try to take care of town business with a clear and level head. 

With a tradition as proud and important as town meeting, we all owe it to ourselves to think through how we can improve them next year.

This post updated to accurately reflect the time of town meeting in West Tisbury.


  1. Thank you for crediting me with saint-like patience. However, I have some quibbles to share about this editorial.

    To begin with, a simple fact check: West Tisbury’s 2024 Annual Town Meeting ended before 10 pm. If “voters were growing anxious as the clock ticked toward 11 pm,” they were doing it in the comfort of their homes after a meeting that lasted less than four hours. During the pandemic, the West Tisbury Select Board began scheduling town meeting an hour earlier (6 pm) in order to avoid late nights. This turned out to be such a good idea that the practice has continued.

    As you admit, it’s easy for a newspaper to pontificate. However, many of the solutions you propose are either impractical or are already in place.

    “Have two meetings a year.” This already happens regularly. West Tisbury had a Special Town Meeting last fall.

    “Push the meeting to a second night.” As you note, this is problematic because it’s hard to muster a quorum on the second night. It also opens a new can of worms: Reconsideration. It’s not unheard-of for voters on the second night to move to “reconsider” a vote taken on the first night. With different (and probably fewer) voters in attendance, there’s the distinct possibility that the work of the first meeting would be undone by the second.

    Long discussion on town meeting floor is often the result of poorly prepared, thinly-vetted, or badly explained warrant articles veiled in bureaucratic or technical jargon. Town meeting runs long when voters bring concerns and suggestions to the meeting floor that should have been addressed weeks or months earlier. As a (now retired) moderator, I share voters’ frustration when a proposed bylaw or affordable housing plan has clearly not been through enough public hearings. Voters are right to raise questions, and it would be wrong for the moderator to cut off discussion.

    Nobody likes a long town meeting. Not the voters, not the town officers and committee members, and certainly not the moderator. Complaining that town meetings are long and tiresome is a tradition as old as town meeting itself. Instead of reinforcing this time-worn reason for skipping town meeting, it would be refreshing if this editorial had urged voters to try a little harder, make a few more sacrifices, bring hard questions to the hearings and committee meetings where the warrant articles originate, and truly exercise their democratic rights while those rights still exist.

  2. I agree with Dan Waters on most every point. What Linda Shapiro brings up in the editorial, well, she frustrated and she’s right in the sense that the proposed warrant articles come way at the end, when a lot of people have left and those who are left simply want to go home. No one is thinking through everything at that hour and consequential decisions are being made. I heard complaints as my wife and I walked out as well, albeit with expletives tossed in!

    I’m in Edgartown and one thing I can tell you, the article on banning leafblowers, a very close vote in favor of not banning them, might have passed without voters having already last, but it came up almost last, close to midnight. One “problem” (not sure it’s a problem, but a point) was that planning board submitted numerous articles, far more than usual, and they were good articles, but perhaps they should have been saved for the end. They primarily dealt with reining in things responsible Islanders are worried about and discuss: overdevelopment, housing, and maintaining town and island character.

    But we do have special town meetings, like Dan writes. Meeting quorum on any given town meeting can be tough. Just ask about last year’s, where we all made phone calls and some walked down to The Wharf to find people who could attend so we would enough voters. Add to that, childcare isn’t taken care of, and you’ve got an even bigger problem. How behind the times is that to not provide childcare for voters with growing families?

    The issue of bringing up important warrant articles earlier in the meeting is a salient point. By the end, people are tired (as I said earlier) and articles are more likely to be “postponed indefinitely” or lack debate. Simply put, people want to leave and many already have–and when many have already left, we are not getting the full picture of what engaged voters Edgartown think.

    On something of a related note, the ability to “indefinitely postpone” an article is a real downer. A voter can stand up, say a couple superficial words (as some did) and propose to “indefinitely postpone.” Warrant articles go through a process to make it on the town warrant, and while the motion to indefinitely postpone an article goes the process of a fair vote with discussion and a seconding, it is a problem. Votes should be taken and discussion should be had.

    “Postponing indefinitely” warrant articles because you don’t like them with a simple motion strikes me as having some relationship to a single Senator in Congress “putting a hold” on a nomination for positions, as one did for our senior military officers for months, which left America’s national security in jeopardy. In that circumstance, a single elected official can shut down such a consequential set of nominations that effect every citizen of the United States, and it’s a flaw in Constitutional law for that reason, in my opinion. The connection to our town meetings is that it’s the same type of thing with proposing to “indefinitely postpone” immediately after the warrant article is introduced by the moderator. When the motion is used to jumpstart the process of torpedoing the democratic process, it’s a bad for democracy and bad for Edgartown. We are short-circuiting choices voters in our town would like considered. As our town moderator had said one article, “I’d really like to see a vote on this, but we’ll have to indefinitely postpone due to the motion, if it passes.” Steve Ewing was facilitating local democracy with that comment and I thank him for that, too.

  3. Per the same situation in Chimark (from past experience), it is inhumane in particular to ask young voters who have small children to hang around for hours at a Town meeting waiting for the most impactful item(s) on the docket – the items most likely to require and elicit citizen engagement and debate – to be brought up. With all of the IT tech available for routine transactions such as driver’s license and registration renewals online, why can’t Vineyard towns allow residents to vote for the most mundane items online, and reserve the on-site meetings for discussion? You can have meetings that run two hours max, and give more people the ability to participate. Town political structures that insist everyone show up in person to go through sometimes hourslong dockets of non-controversial administrative articles create exclusion and dampen participation. This should be a no-brainer. More people will look forward to citizen participation if the folks running the meetings are willing to adapt to the times in a way that invites, rather than discourages, wider involvement.

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