By Paul Tennant
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — Town Moderator Mark DiSalvo is making a move to bring the Town Meeting into the 21st century.
Starting with this year’s annual Town Meeting on May 20, voters who are watching the proceedings on television or the Internet will be permitted to direct questions to the assembly, DiSalvo said.
The open town meeting – where every voter in a community can participate in major decisions such as spending and the enactment of bylaws – goes back to the 17th century.
North Andover has been governed by an open Town Meeting since 1646, when it was still part of Andover, and continued the practice when it became a separate municipality in 1855.
For the last 159 years, voters have not been permitted to pose questions unless they are physically present in the place where the Town Meeting is taking place, he noted. DiSalvo said he has discussed this innovation with other moderators and some have reacted with “consternation.”
DiSalvo said he is not aware of any other community that allows “outside” questions during its town meeting.
Voters who are not present in the North Andover High School auditorium on the night of Town Meeting will be able to ask questions by accessing the town’s website, www.townofnorthandover.com. Anyone who uses the website to pose a question “needs to be an engaged participant,” DiSalvo said.
The questioner will be asked to give, via email, his or her name and address so that a volunteer will be able to verify that the person is a registered voter in North Andover. Also, a question about a particular article must be initiated when that article is being discussed, DiSalvo said.
Since he was elected as moderator two years ago, DiSalvo has streamlined the process by having an overhead projector display each article under discussion on a screen. He has also appointed volunteer citizen advocates who guide voters on matters such as how to gain recognition or craft a motion.
Child care is provided so the parents of young children can attend the meeting.
“This year I will allow questions to be presented by citizens outside the meeting venue. Special rules and procedures will be in place as we experiment with this innovation,” DiSalvo wrote in his annual moderator’s message. “In sum, citizens observing the meeting but unable to attend will be allowed to email questions to a secure website and, after proper vetting for redundancy and voter identity, have their question posed to the meeting. Only questions will be presented - no statements of position, amendments or motions will be allowed. Further, severe time limits on the period of outside the room queries will be in place so as not to disrespect those who actually attend Town Meeting.”