Brattleboro Representative Town Meeting members should try an experiment. The body should form a Warrant Committee for a trial period of one year and see how it goes.
What’s a Warrant Committee?
When Bob Gannett brought Representative Town Meeting to Brattleboro, his experience with it began in Milton, MA. And in Milton, Town Meeting Representatives have a much bigger role in setting the agenda and budget to be voted on. Representatives elect a 15 person Warrant Committee to decide what articles will be warned.
When the Town prepares a preliminary budget, it goes to the Selectboard, which gives it to the Warrant Committee. The Warrant Committee then reports on and recommends a budget and tax rate.
In Milton, it takes 10 registered voters to put an issue on the Warrant for Annual Town Meeting. Town departments, boards, and committees can place items on the Warrant as well.
Why would the Warrant Committee be a good experiment? Three reasons.
First, it would be interesting to see what happens when Representatives are given more control and authority. Giving Representatives a greater role in setting the agenda and budget might lead to different outcomes. It could make local democracy even more direct. Fifteen or more reps would see budget requests and decide what appropriations are necessary, without the filter of a five member Selectboard.
Second, the selectboard would be relieved of the heavy holiday workload of budgets. The selectboard could spend more time and energy on policy, rather than budgets. They might get more done by distributing the workload this way.
Third, those desiring an impact on the budget would be more inclined to run as a Town Meeting Representative, so they could volunteer for or be appointed to the Warrant Committee. Voters might then take more interest in who the elect to serve if the results mattered more. And if 10 voters were allowed to get something on the agenda, the problems and confusion of advisory motions at the end of the meeting might be dispensed with.
Fourth is that more Town Meeting Representatives would be required to pay closer attention to the operation of the town throughout the year.
Last, but not least, is that it probably wouldn’t be that hard to give it a try. Town Departments would still prepare budgets and the Town manager would still compile them. Instead of meeting with the selectboard, though, budget meetings would be with the Warrant Committee. The Warrant Committee would give the informational sessions to fellow members each year.
Giving the Warrant Committee a try is perhaps the least invasive way I can think of attempt to improve RTM. RTM still excludes the majority of voters, in my view, but this might shift the balance so that those who are able to participate in Representative Town Meeting have a greater role and more meaningful responsibility.
Here’s how Milton, MA has it written up in their Charter:
THE WARRANT COMMITTEE
Section 1. The Town shall have an advisory committee to be known as the Warrant Committee consisting of fifteen legal voters of the Town. On or before the fifth day of July in each year the Moderator shall appoint fifteen members to the Warrant Committee each of whom shall serve for a term of one year beginning on the fifth day of July in the year of the appointment.
Section 2. The Warrant Committee shall, prior to the fifteenth day of July in each year, meet, at the call of the member thereof first named, for organization by the choice of a chairman and secretary. And they shall meet thereafter from time to time as they may deem advisable.
a. They shall have the power to fill vacancies in their number by vote, attested copy of which shall be sent by the secretary to the Town Clerk.
Section 3. It shall be the duty of the Warrant Committee to inform themselves concerning those affairs and interest of the Town, the subject-matter of which is generally included in the warrants for its Town meeting; and the officers of the Town shall, upon their request, furnish them with facts, figures, and any other information pertaining to their several departments; provided, however, that any such information may be withheld when, in the opinion of the officer or board of officers so requested, the communication thereof might injuriously affect the interests
of the Town or its citizens.
Section 4. The Warrant Committee 112 shall consider the various articles in the warrants for all the Town Meetings held during the period for which they were appointed including the various articles in the warrant for the annual Town Meeting next after their appointment; they shall also consider all questions submitted to the voters of the Town at any meeting, excluding State elections; and they shall report in print before all such meetings their estimates and recommendations for the action of the Town. Copies of such reports shall be left at the dwelling houses in the Town at least four days before the day set for consideration of the various articles in the warrant considered by them and at least four days before the day upon which the voters are to consider questions submitted to them at any meeting.
a. On or before December first of each year each board, committee or officer of the Town shall file with the Selectmen, who shall transmit the same to the Warrant Committee, a preliminary budget, with a statement in detail of the appropriation or appropriations recommended by such board, committee or officer for the work under its or his charge for the ensuing year, with a final copy of said budget due to the Warrant Committee by January thirty- first.
b. The Warrant Committee shall include in its report of recommendations for the annual Town Meeting a statement setting forth the total appropriations so requested, the appropriations recommended, and the totals of such appropriations requested and recommended, and an estimate of the tax rate for the ensuing year if such recommendations are adopted. The copies of such reports may be combined with the warrants of the Selectmen for publication and delivery as provided in Section 1 of Chapter 2.