HOW TO PARTICIPATE IN TOWN GOVERNMENT
HOW TO REGISTER TO VOTE
You must register to vote in Massachusetts. To qualify for registration you must be: a U.S. citizen, at least 18 years of age by election day, and a resident of the district in which you register.
The town clerk in each town is responsible for registering voters (check the town listing for town hall office hours). Town clerks also hold special registration hours in the evenings before annual elections.
TOWN MEETINGS AND ELECTIONS
On Martha’s Vineyard, voters participate directly in the major decisions and money allocations voted on at town meetings. The agenda for the town meeting is called the warrant, and the issues to be voted on are the articles. Only 10 signatures are required on a petition if a citizen wishes to bring an issue before the voters for their consideration. However, most of the articles on the warrant are prepared by the selectmen or various town departments. Information on warrant deadlines is available at the
town clerk’s office.
All six Island towns hold annual town meetings in the late winter or early spring. Special town meetings can be called at other times of the year. The voter can call a town meeting by petition by gathering 100 signatures of registered voters, but generally, special town meetings are called by the selectmen.
In order to participate in a town meeting, you must be a registered voter in that town. Observers are welcome at town meeting, but are usually required to sit in a separate visitors’ section. The warrants for town meetings appear in the local papers and the warrant for the annual town meeting is published in the annual town report. These are available at the town hall and at the annual town meeting.
Town elections take place each spring and anyone interested in running for an elected office should obtain information from the town clerk early in the year. There is a deadline for declaring yourself a candidate for office. The procedure is precise and must be carried out according to state statute. The town clerk is the authority on this matter and must be consulted for the correct procedure. (Specifics vary from town to town.) Write-in candidates and sticker votes are legal if the correct name and address
of the candidate is used.
Absentee voting in elections is permissible. Again your town clerk should be consulted for the correct procedure. There is no absentee voting on issues brought before the town meeting. Election of officials is held on or after the date of the annual town meeting.
TOWN BOARDS - BOARD OF ASSESSORS
The six towns, through a series of votes beginning at their annual town meetings and continuing with special meetings and possibly an override of Proposition 2 1/2, must decide how much to spend for providing town services. The town assessors must, with the approval of the state, establish a tax rate sufficient to cover the amount to be spent. Assessors and other town officials go through a lengthy procedure of reporting to the State Department of Revenue before the tax rates can be certified. Sometimes the votes
establishing spending amounts come late in the fiscal year, delaying the procedures for obtaining state certification; because of this, delays in timely issuance of tax bills can occur.
Assessors are elected to three-year terms and are required to take at least one course given by the state, usually at UMASS Amherst.
The Towns’ Tax Base
The taxes on land, buildings, and personal property plus excise taxes on cars and boats provide by far the largest percentage of the money required to run the towns and schools. Local taxes from summer homes on the Island are an important part of town revenues. The tax rate is expressed in dollars per $1000 of assessed valuation. Fiscal years run from July 1 to June 30, and final tax bills are mailed when all information and procedures are completed; however it is possible, with state approval, for towns to send
In addition to the money paid in local taxes, the towns receive income from certain state and federal subsidies, plus some federal revenue-sharing funds, a refund of state tax money, and a portion of lottery proceeds. These are computed annually for each city and town in the commonwealth. State reimbursements are listed for each town on the “cherry sheet,” so called because of the color.
State law requires that all real estate be assessed at full market value and all properties be reappraised at least every three years. Generally, professionals are employed to make these appraisals, basing assessments on actual sales in the preceding year to establish values as of January 1 of the reappraisal year. The assessors hold hearings for taxpayers who feel their assessments are incorrect. Appeal from the assessors’ rulings at these hearings may be made to the State Appellate Tax Board.
On revaluation years, state officials will visit the town to ascertain the correctness of procedures in determining the new valuations, which may further delay certification.
BOARD OF HEALTH
A wide range of tasks and the broadest powers among municipal boards lie with the boards of health. In general, boards of health are charged with safeguarding the health of the town’s residents.
Specific duties vary from town to town, but major among their duties is that of safeguarding drinking water. This includes inspecting and issuing permits for septic systems, dealing with the safe disposal of night soil, monitoring groundwater for possible contamination from leaking pollutants, monitoring leaching from local landfills, and regulating the use of underground fuel storage tanks. Overseeing safe and efficient operation of the town landfills, planning ahead for the regional disposal of solid and hazardous
wastes, and appointing the membership of and working with the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District (MVRDRRD) fall to the boards of health in the towns that are members of the MVRDRRD.
The boards inspect and license all food establishments; monitor the quality of pond and lake water and work to secure safe shellfisheries; appoint a nursing care agency to provide home visits to newborns and the infirm and to provide various health care clinics; issue tent permits; inspect and test for lead paint; provide public information and education on common health hazards; relocate displaced families; and investigate any reported hazards or violations.
Boards of health have three elected members, each serving a three-year term. Most boards meet on a weekly basis. Meetings are open to the public. Boards of health are the only boards in town government that may pass a regulation without a public hearing.
In order to facilitate communication between boards of health, standardize regulations, and share ideas, an All-Island Board of Health has been established. This board is advisory and has no power to regulate.
Funded by town taxes, local conservation commissions regulate and advise town policy on environmental matters. They may accept gifts of land and money for the acquisition of land for their towns with the approval of the selectmen.
Members are appointed by the selectmen. Their functions include the following: planning of open spaces for recreation; acquisition of land for protection of water recharge areas; regulation of flood plains; regulation of wetlands; protection of agriculture, forestry, and fishing that affect the economic health of the town; coordination of all town bodies whose activities have an effect on the environment.
Be sure to check with your town’s conservation commission if you have plans that involve waterfront, a pier, a groin, a beach house, etc. Swamps are also protected. It is necessary to follow the procedure that includes a written notice of intent, followed by a public hearing and an “order of conditions” from the conservation commission.
Several privately funded organizations work closely with the commissions on matters of mutual concern. These include: Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club, Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, The Trustees of Reservations, Vineyard Conservation Society, Vineyard Open Land Foundation, and Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary.
All personnel boards consist of five appointed members. They act in cooperation with town officials and the finance committee on all matters relating to non-elected employees, except those under the jurisdiction of the school committee. The job of the personnel board is to administer, review, and amend salary schedules and to establish personnel policies, vacations, and fringe benefits. In addition, the board functions as a personnel relations review board and is empowered to adjust grievances of town employees.
PLANNING AND ZONING BOARDS
Each town has a planning board consisting of from five to seven elected members. Planning boards have three major functions:
Zoning: The board proposes changes or additions to zoning bylaws, holds public hearings, and submits them as proposed warrant articles to be voted on at town meeting.
Administration of the Subdivision Control Law: The planning board reviews all applications for the division of land into lots, and bases approval on town zoning bylaws, its own rules and regulations, and applicable state statutes.
Master planning: After special studies of the town’s assets and problems, the board prepares a master plan for the town, establishing the town’s policies for the ways in which land or water may or may not be used.
There are special laws pertaining to a subdivision, which is defined as a development where new roads are necessary and where a tract of land is to be divided into two or more lots and possibly divided again. If every lot in a development has frontage on an existing way in public use, there is no subdivision.
Most towns on the Island and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission have adopted regulations that limit the number of houses that may be built in one year on a piece of property being divided. Exceptions may be allowed under certain circumstances.
A master plan is a guide to the future growth of a town. After consultation with citizens and town agencies as well as professional planners, the planning board may create a master plan with recommendations for conservation, recreation, residential protection, neighborhood improvement, etc. It must then be approved by a two-thirds vote at a town meeting. The master plan is an advisory tool designed to help a town develop clear and workable goals.
The purpose of the historic preservation commission is to preserve the cultural heritage of the towns. The commission compiles an inventory of town properties of historic, archeological, or architectural significance. The inventory is then submitted to the state, which assumes a protective function if historic properties are threatened. The inventory also helps the state evaluate properties when they are submitted to the National Register of Historic Places.
National registry property owners are eligible to apply for grants-in-aid for historic preservation. When an area containing several structures of historic value is identified, the commission may set up a historic district study committee, its members appointed by the selectmen. Following a poll of residents in the proposed district and a public hearing, a historic district is established by a two-thirds vote of town meeting. From that time forward, any changes in the exterior design of the buildings within the
district must be considered and approved by a district commission. Its jurisdiction may extend to cover the following: terraces, walks, driveways, sidewalks, walls or fences, paint color other than white, color of roof material, size of signs, demolition of buildings, reconstruction, new structures and additions. Property owners have the right of appeal.
ZONING BOARD OF APPEALS
A zoning board of appeals in each town may grant special permits and variances to individuals pleading hardship or special circumstances. Approval may be given, subject to conditions or restrictions. Beginning in 1972, Island towns adopted comprehensive zoning bylaws, which are presently in place in all towns. Although zoning bylaws differ in each town, they all state the types and locations of the various districts—residential, business, industrial, and agricultural—and and describe the permitted
uses for each. They regulate the size of lots and the density permitted, the citing and the height of the structures. The selectmen or building and zoning officers of the towns administer the bylaws, issuing permits for all construction. Cases involving Developments of Regional Impact are referred to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
TOWN OFFICIALS - EXECUTIVE SECRETARY
The job of the executive secretary is to provide coordination among all the town offices and departments and to act frequently as secretary to the selectmen. Many of the executive secretaries look for and apply for grants to aid in the efficient operation of their towns. The secretaries are appointed by the selectmen. All six towns on the Vineyard have this position.
The moderator is an elected town official who presides at the town meetings, regulating the proceedings, deciding all questions of order and making public declaration of all votes. No person addresses the meeting without permission from the moderator. The people may vote to request the moderator appoint committees. Rules for conducting each town’s town meeting are found in its bylaws.
The office of selectman in Massachusetts has existed for more than 300 years, and the power of the board, as stipulated by general statute and town bylaws, has changed little.
The board of selectmen of each town is mandated to carry out the measures voted at town meeting. Five of the six towns have three selectmen, elected at large for staggered three year-terms. Oak Bluffs has enlarged its board of selectmen to five members.
TThe selectmen share political power with a host of other elected officers and boards. The All-Island Selectmen’s Association, which meets monthly, serves to coordinate action on mutual town problems.
The tax collector, an elected official, is responsible for all the billing and collecting of local real and personal property taxes and also collects state motor vehicle excise taxes payable to the towns.
The town accountant is appointed by the selectmen for a three-year term. This officer is responsible for keeping all department accounts and approving vouchers signed by department heads. He/she approves payments to be made by the treasurer and prepares a periodic list of town expenditures for the selectmen’s approval. The accountant provides a detailed record of the town’s financial transactions; this record is published annually in the town report and is audited at prescribed intervals.
The town clerk’s office is the place to obtain petition forms and nomination papers. This office issues marriage licenses and copies of birth, marriage, and death certificates, as well as hunting, fishing, and dog licenses. The clerk, an elected official, records the proceedings of all town meetings and keeps official records of all town events, including its vital statistics. Other duties include voter registration, preparing voter lists, and swearing in all of the town officials. The clerk is chairman
of the town’s board of registrars of voters.
The town treasurer, usually an elected official, is the custodian of all town funds. All payments are made by the treasurer in accordance with the town warrants. This officer negotiates, awards, and prepares all notes issued by the town for borrowing; these are countersigned by the selectmen. The treasurer invests surplus funds of the town and is responsible for management of the interest and debt schedules.