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Moving Our Democracy Forward: Virtual Town Meetings

Moving Our Democracy Forward:

Virtual Town Meetings

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Greater Boston region in early March, municipalities have been at the center of addressing many of the problems that rose with it. One of those? Keeping our democracy running. Besides pivoting municipal operations to comply with social distancing guidelines and facilitating general election voting, local towns have had to completely reimagine a classic tradition of democracy in Massachusetts: Town Meeting.  

In Massachusetts, Town Meetings are a key part of our civic infrastructure, allowing residents to directly impact their communities by choosing whether to approve local statutes and bylaws, salaries for elected officials, and the town budget. There are two types of Town Meeting: Open Town Meetings and Representative Town Meetings. Open Town Meeting is a direct democracy, allowing all residents to vote on town matters. In a Representative Town Meeting, voters elect Town Meeting members, who vote on town business.  

Both forms of Town Meetings faced challenges due to COVID-19. Many meetings scheduled for the spring were cancelled as leaders considered safety measures to move the democratic process forward in the face of the pandemic. Some towns conducted outdoor socially-distanced events using personal protective equipment, while others moved forward with virtual Town Meetings. MAPC began to provide technical expertise to towns grappling with these challenges early on, focusing on virtual Town Meetings. 

MAPC’s Community Engagement Division compiled resources and strategies to support municipalities with virtual meetings, and worked with Stoughton and Dedham to translate their town meeting processes to a digital format. Key takeaways from these projects include:  

Virtual Town Meetings: Twelve Things You Need To Know

1

Organize and convene a working group or committee to facilitate the execution of virtual Town Meeting.  

2

Reach out to other municipalities and regional organizations who have already conducted virtual Town Meetings for advice.  

3

Connect to local communications partners like local press and public access TV to share key information with representatives and residents ahead of the event, and to livestream the meeting as it occurs.  

4

Consult with the Attorney General’s office and your legal counsel about how to comply with Open Meeting Law and translate legal procedures to a virtual format.  

5

Conduct a survey of town representatives and meeting participants to understand digital literacy, technical needs, and other meeting key data.  

6

Provide training and optional one-on-one support to all key participants of virtual Town Meeting, including town meeting representatives and town staff. Make sure these key players know how to use the technology and understand how the meeting will be conducted.

Want an example? Check out this video of a training MAPC provided for Dedham's Town Meeting representatives!

7

Provide an informational virtual event for representatives to understand Town Meeting warrant articles before the day of Town Meeting.

8

For virtual meetings, cut down on the amount of content and warrant articles normally covered 

9

Secure a phone number to serve as a hotline for technical support before and during the day of virtual Town Meeting. 

10

Conduct a dry run of a virtual Town Meeting with the moderator, key presenters, and technical staff.  

11

When facilitating virtually, walk participants step by step through the process (as they are unable to see the process the way they would in an in-person setting).  

12

Looking for more advice about how to successfully facilitate a virtual meeting? Read MAPC’s guide to hosting engaging meetings, virtually and watch MAPC’s webinar on virtual town meetings:

In the middle of a once-in-a-century public health emergency, local democracy was able to progress and evolve as towns built new processes for virtual meetings. 

On June 29 and 30, Stoughton and MAPC conducted the first digital town meeting in the town’s history, and one of the first of the pandemic. Stoughton partnered with MAPC to build out a meeting process, expand the capacity and skills of Dedham’s staff and representatives, and configure digital security settings for Zoom. Over 150 town representatives were able to securely understand, debate, and vote on 29 warrant articles.  

In September, MAPC again assisted Stoughton, this time with a Special Town Meeting. Well over 100 town representatives voted on 24 articles over four night. SMAC TV (Stoughton Media Access Corporation) broadcasted and live streamed the event. A hotline was made available for public comment and for representative technical support.  

MAPC also consulted with the Town of Dedham, meeting with the town’s planning team weekly for four months and working with the town moderator, Dan Driscoll, to build out communications, train and on-board representatives, and troubleshoot technical issues prior the event.  At the meeting, 250 representatives were able to debate and vote on 30 articles, 24 of which were from the Finance and Warrant Committee. MAPC and the town made close captioning available for all participants and viewers. The event was broadcast over Dedham TV and streamed online. 

What’s next? MAPC is eager to keep helping municipalities plan, set up, and facilitate virtual Town Meetings.

Do you have a public meeting, engagement event coming up? Do you have questions about civic participation and engagement? Please contact the Community Engagement division at MAPC to understand how we can help and support. Learn more on our webpage or email us at communityengagment@mapc.org.