Peter F. Skwirz, Esq. Practices out of East Providence
Rhode Islanders can trace the origins of the town meeting to the earliest form of government in the colony. When Roger Williams and a small band of original proprietors founded Providence in 1636, they agreed to a fortnightly meeting of "masters of families" or "householders" to discuss matters of "common peace, watch, and planting." Thus, from the time of the founding of the colony, and later the state, the town meeting was the primary mode of municipal governance. In a nutshell, the town meeting form of government is a direct participation democracy involving the qualified electors of a town gathering to elect officers, pass municipal regulations, and generally conduct the affairs of the town. Henry David Thoreau referred to the town meeting as "the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States."
A severe limitation to this form of government is that it isn't practical or effectual for handling the affairs of larger municipalities. Between 1832 and 1958, eight Rhode Island municipalities, due to increasing population, were reincorporated by the General Assembly from townships to cities. The reason for and effect of the reincorporation was to change the municipal governance structure from direct democracy to representative democracy, to better handle the affairs of a larger population. Historically, in a city, "its general affairs are administered by means of certain officers, such as mayor, aldermen, and councils, to whom the citizens entrust most of the legislative and the executive powers, [but] in towns they exercise [these powers] in person, in town meetings."
With the home rule amendment to the state constitution, a Rhode Island municipality may abandon the town meeting form of government without reincorporation as a city by the General Assembly. As the state's population has grown, almost all of Rhode Island's 31 towns have abandoned the town meeting form of government, instead choosing to adopt a council-administrator, council-manager, or council-mayor form of government. Only four small towns - Foster, Glocester, Exeter, and Little Compton - maintain the town council-town meeting form of government.
Although the general town meeting has fallen out of favor as a form of municipal government, a species of town meeting is still fairly prevalent in Rhode Island towns. A financial town meeting (FTM) operates like a general town meeting, except that the scope of matters considered at the meeting is restricted to the adoption, rejection, or modification of a proposed budget submitted to the electorate by the town officials. Even though the majority of Rhode Island towns have abandoned the general town meeting form of government, 16 of Rhode Island's 31 towns maintain an FTM as the final part of their budget processes. Even Coventry, Rhode Island's 7th largest municipality and largest town, maintains an FTM as part of its budget process. The question arises: why would a town discard the general town meeting form of government, yet still maintain an FTM as part of its budget process? A review of the FTM's historical origins provides some insight. In turn, this review sheds light on the powers given to and restrictions placed upon the FTM.
History of the Financial Town Meeting in Rhode Island
The origins of the FTM date back to the original constitution adopted by the state in 1843. Earlier, under the Colonial Charter, the right to vote was restricted to real property owners. With the adoption of the 1843 constitution, this restriction on the right to vote was partially abolished. However, up until the constitutional convention of 1973, the R.I. constitution still required a person to either own real property or pay taxes on personal property of at least $134 "to vote upon any proposition to impose a tax or for the expenditure of money in any town." "By the adoption of the  constitution it became necessary for the first time to hold a financial town meeting for the transaction of such business as only taxpaying electors could transact and also a general town meeting for the e lection of members of the town council and other town officers in the election of whom all the electors, whether taxpayers or not, were entitled to participate.” The Rhode Island Supreme Court described the move to separate the FTM from the general town meeting in Carr v. Kettelle, 75 A. 488, 489 (R.I. 1910) as follows: At the time of the adoption of the present constitution in 1843, and for many years thereafter, it was apparently the universal custom to hold the general town meeting for the election of town officers and the financial town meeting on the same day… But with the great growth of the population of the State and the corresponding increase in the amount of the appropriations necessary for the expenses of the town, as well as the greater number of appropriations required therefor and the increasing difficulty of having a larger electorate balloting for officers while the taxpayers were debating the town...