Town hall meetings, also known as town hall forums or town hall meetings, a term that arises mainly in North America, are an informal way for national and local politicians to meet their constituents either in the gathering hall or to discuss various topical issues or pending legislation. The term was first used in Great Britain and has now spread all over the world to describe a meeting place where elected officials meet to discuss local issues. These meetings are sometimes referred to as town hall conventions or political conferences. In the United States, however, it has come to refer to a single institution which is responsible for coordinating the agenda of town hall meetings.
A town hall typically consists of a building usually of a size equivalent to or larger than a municipal building, seats for those attending and a seal. Unlike a municipal building, which often serves as a store or a central meeting point for several local residents, a town hall may have no such purposes. It is, instead, a central location where all town hall meetings are held. Sometimes, they are even held at the same place, such as at the local courthouse. But most of the time the seats in a town hall are used for debating local issues such as, but not limited to, zoning matters, laws against polluting the atmosphere, noise control and littering.
Historically, the role of the town hall has been somewhat contradictory. Historically, in most countries, the role of the town hall or civic authority was to conduct town meetings and keep the records of property transactions. This function was mostly performed by aldermen (marketeers) who, together with the people of the community, meet regularly to make decisions about local matters, such as the purchase of goods or services and the regulation of local business. The right to vote in local elections was obtained by election as well as the holding of general assemblies at which a wide range of citizens would share their views on a wide range of topics. The role of the city hall in the formulation of local laws and the enforcement of such laws has varied over time and places such as Florence in Italy or Vienna in Austria.
The modern town hall in any part of the world is a relatively recent development. Traditionally, in most societies, a town hall was built either in the main market square or at the centre of town. In much of North America and Western Europe, a town hall was located within a granary or fortress, which was a structure that protected the community from outside harm, but also provided an important gathering place for residents. Often, a town hall was the focal point of local economic activity and social interaction. The inclusion of a rathaus in a town hall did nothing to change this.
Modern administrators have a more mixed view of town halls. Whereas, historically, they have been seen as important administrative centres and meeting places for citizens and merchants alike, in many developed nations they have become purely functional offices. Town halls that once were the central location for political engagement now are used as phone and fax machine reception areas.
Historically, the town hall was responsible for marshalling the support of local merchants and their clients for the local government. It was the chief administrative building where laws were passed and ordinances implemented by the local governing body. Town halls throughout Europe had large halls with open floor plans and contained a central meeting and committee room as well as the public square, where citizens assembled to transact various types of business. Although the general purpose of a town hall has changed to include a function instead of design, the basic functional layout of a town hall still exists.