It looks like Annual Town Meeting on Monday, March 27, will begin at 6:30 p.m.
Select Board members at their meeting Tuesday reached consensus on that change, as well as a deadline of 10:15 p.m. for introducing a new article on the floor.
The start time for the past several years has been 7 p.m.; before that it was 7:30 p.m. The cutoff time for new articles has been 10:45 p.m.
The changes are intended to be for just 2023, after which they will be evaluated. The town manager’s office is preparing a survey to gauge residents’ views on these and other Town Meeting processes, although Town Manager Sarah Stanton said the timing would preclude major changes for the March Annual Town Meeting.
Board member Bopha Malone said the survey results should help define future directions. “Right now, I would try something different,” she said. Her colleague Shawn Hanegan pointed out that change could spark interest in the survey.
Select Board member Ed Pierce – who is retiring from the board two weeks before Town Meeting – initially proposed the 6:30 p.m. start at a meeting held on Jan. 9.
At Tuesday’s discussion, there was little opposition. “People don’t like staying up late. It strikes me as being a relatively safe thing,” said board member Margot Fleischman. “People’s dinner hour has to be a little earlier. It gives people a fair shot at getting home from work.”
Fleischman pointed out that at the opening Town Meeting session, ceremonial features such as the posting of the colors and the reading of a memorial resolution precede the start of business. She also was concerned about the impact on staff.
Stanton said the pre-Town Meeting menu is usually pizza for the town manager’s office. “More important is that it works for the general public,” she said.
Hanegan advocated the earlier closing deadline. “10:15 makes sense. People’s feedback says we are staying too late,” he said, noting the “sheer length of the meeting.”
Fleischman also called for retention of the 10-minute window for presentation of a Town Meeting article. “That gives people who really need it the time,” she said, adding that “presentations shouldn’t be overly long if they don’t have to be.”
Board members also exchanged views on the current five-minute allowances for comments and amendments. “Why would an amendment need five minutes? I would be inclined to say three minutes,” Hanegan said.
Pierce noted, “We have had substantive presentations on amendments and I’d like the person who’s doing it to feel they have more than three minutes. For a complicated article, the last thing we want to do is make it feel rushed.”
Stanton and board members suggested that the March Town Meeting could actually be completed in one night. There are 23 warrant articles, and Stanton pointed out that some more significant entries – capital article, community preservation, budget – are “relatively light.” The sole zoning amendment is penciled in near the end of the warrant because, Stanton said, “there is fear of losing the quorum.” If all that remains on the warrant is “the business needed to run the town, there’s a bit of concern that we may be scrambling.”
Board members said they expect the informational videos on articles, first prepared as a way to shorten discussion during the pandemic, will continue. Mitchell added, “We have talked about doing some sort of pre-meeting meeting, almost like office hours, for people who want to ask about specific articles.”
Stanton said she would try to identify a suitable time and coordinate with the moderator and other relevant department heads. The session is not meant to replace discussion at Town Meeting, members agreed.
Referring to the early start, Fleischman asked, “What are we in competition with in March?” Hanegan mentioned that the Red Sox were considering starting night games at 6:30 p.m., and Mitchell, a loyal fan, cracked, “I like to think we’re better managed.”