Town Meeting Warrants – How Specific Do the Articles Need to Be?
The Supreme Judicial Court recently had occasion to review and affirm the adequacy of a Town Meeting Warrant article that the Town itself claimed was misleading such that the vote taken under it should be invalidated.
In Boss v. Town of Leverett, SJC-12780 (April 23, 2020), a retired employee claimed that she was entitled to payment from the Town of 50% of her health insurance premiums for her husband’s coverage. The Town had accepted, by Town Meeting vote and by ballot, M.G.L. c.32B, §9A, which requires the Town to pay half the cost of the health insurance premium that the retiree pays. The Town presented the question of acceptance of the statute via two warrant articles. The first proposed adoption of specific language regarding retirees’ premiums and appropriated money for payment of premiums, and the second contained the ballot question. The Town claimed that the first article, which described the topic to be considered to be whether the Town would pay 50% of an individual health plan premium, misled the voters to such a degree that the vote of acceptance should be invalidated.
The Supreme Judicial Court disagreed and held that the warrant article was sufficient. It outlined the limited reasons for which a Town Meeting vote may be invalidated due to a defect in the warrant: The warrant is misleading; the language of the warrant substantially alters the article’s meaning, or the warrant fails to state sufficiently the nature of the matter to be taken up by the voters. It cited with approval several decisions holding that, under M.G.L. c. 39, §10, warrants are sufficient if “‘they indicate with substantial certainty the nature of the business to be acted on.’” Id., quoting Coffin v. Lawrence, 143 Mass. 110, 112 (1886). The Court also quoted Burlington v. Dunn, 318 Mass. 216, 219, cert. denied, 326 U.S. 739 (1945) (“[G.L. c.39, §10] does not require that the warrant contain an accurate forecast of the precise action which the meeting will take upon [announced] subjects”). The Court found that the Town provided no evidence that the voters had not clearly understood what they were voting on, and noted that the voters approved at the ballot the exact acceptance language required by the statute.