Town Meeting voters signal their views by holding brightly colored papers aloft... usually. File photo

From knowledge to knitting, tips on gearing up for Town Meeting

By Celeste Katz Marston —

When Win Wilbur moved to Concord, attending Town Meeting wasn’t high on her to-do list.  

“I had four little children and a husband who was traveling on business half of the week,” she said, “and I thought, ‘Town Meeting? What the heck is that? Who needs it?’”

Starting Monday at 7 p.m. at Concord-Carlisle High School and continuing for the next two nights, Town Meeting will unite voters to debate how Concord’s money should be spent and how the town will function and feel in the future. 

Now 90, Wilbur says she’s attended Town Meeting since about 1970. If anyone knows the ropes of Concord’s centuries-old form of self-governance, she does. 

She and others say that if you’re attending this year for the first time, the fifth, or the fiftieth, being prepared can help navigate a complex — and sometimes contentious — process. 

Moving pieces

The warrant: Bring it along, Win Wilbur advises. Photo by Celeste Katz Marston

Voters will have received their guide to the three-day legislative journey — the yellow-jacketed warrant. Bring that along, Wilbur advises. (It’s also available on the websites of the town and The Concord Bridge, including at the end of this story.)

There’s also a “Town Meeting Traditions” guide and plenty of other literature available on scene ahead of the big event. 

Any registered voter can come to the meeting, speak, and vote. But “one thing to know about Town Meeting is that it’s really the culmination of a process and not the beginning of a process,” says Town Moderator Carmin Reiss, who has served since 2016 and was re-elected this month.

She noted that articles have been months in the making by the time they appear on the warrant.

Reiss cautions that the meeting votes on motions made on the floor, which may ultimately differ from what’s printed in the warrant.

Some articles are procedural. Many are budgetary, some amend town bylaws, and citizen sponsors put others forward.

Articles are generally taken up in the order they appear in the warrant, although there are exceptions. 

Town Moderator Carmin Reiss. Photo by Celeste Katz Marston

Some items may be consolidated into a consent calendar and voted on all at once. Certain “high-interest” matters can be scheduled at a specific time. This year, a discussion of MBTA Zoning, which could clear the way for more multi-family housing in Concord, happens Tuesday at 7:15 p.m.

A Special Town Meeting on solar storage is slated for 7:10 p.m. Wednesday.

While there can be cases where a two-thirds vote of Town Meeting can take an article out of order, Reiss says, “The time to really influence the order of the articles in the warrant is before the warrant goes to print.”

Unlike in a standard election, Town Meeting votes are public. Meeting-goers indicate support for a motion by holding up a brightly colored paper. (The color is always a surprise, so no one can stack the deck by bringing their own slips.) Sometimes, if the voters’ verdict isn’t immediately apparent, there’s a standing vote.

In rare cases, voting is done by secret ballot — and Reiss and her colleagues are gearing up for that possibility this year.

Read more: Town Meeting organizers prepare for possibility of private paper ballot 

Town Meeting survival tactics

To Wilbur, the annual meeting is “almost like going to a play. It’s quite fascinating because you see the different points of view about things.” (If this goes on too long, Wilbur said, voters can “call the question, which means, ‘All right, shut up and let’s vote.’”)

As to keeping up energy and spirits over the long haul, people bring water (or coffee), and “for a number of years I’ve always brought something to knit on,” says Wilbur, whose late husband, Elliott, served on the Select Board in the late 80s and early 90s. 

“I think you really can’t sit there and read your cell phone all night and still follow what’s going on.” 

Warning: there’s no formal intermission. 

“I think it’s important that the managers say, ‘Alright, now, let’s take a break,’ and everybody [can] stand up and wiggle,” Wilbur says. “It’s a long day.” 

Some articles printed in the Town Meeting warrant may be amended — or withdrawn. Photo by Celeste Katz Marston 

Talk time and pricetags

The idea that Town Meeting voters can spend more time debating certain hot-button issues than scrutinizing big-ticket purchases certainly isn’t new to Wilbur, and likely shouldn’t come as a surprise to newcomers.

“I remember a friend who was involved in one of the committees saying, ‘You know, we spend 15 minutes voting for a million dollars for the schools, and then we spend an hour [talking about] cats being allowed to be outside because they eat birds, or [buying] something for $5,000,’” Wilbur said. 

“Those are the things people got passionate about, versus things that are going to cost a lot of tax money.”

Being there

Another thing about Town Meeting: Attendance isn’t always great. 

In 2023, per town statistics, 728 voters attended the first night; that dropped to just 353 on the second. The previous year, the meeting drew 644 voters the first night and 725 the second. 

The challenges faced by modern-day families may have something to do with that. 

File photo

Hannah Burchenal moved to Concord from Boston about three years ago but plans to attend Town Meeting for the first time this year. 

“We have a toddler at home, so it’s just been kind of hard to make it out,” she said. 

As with other families, attending to help shape crucial town decisions will be a balancing act.

Burchenal, who works as a manager at a Cambridge-based technology company and often logs back on after her child’s bedtime, expects she and her husband may alternate nights.

Despite the logistical challenges, “It’s nice to have a voice,” Burchenal said, “and take part in changes that [will] over a longer term, change the shape and the feel of the town.”