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All those in favor? Keeping Town Meeting Day alive

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted February 2, 2007

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles examining some of the hot topics facing voters this coming Town Meeting Day.

Image: Norman Rockwell

With the arrival of Town Meeting Day comes the perennial call from the floor: Is town meeting dying out?

Before the question is called, there are plenty of folks willing to debate this point, and plenty of opinions on how to improve town meetings.

Last year, educator Susan Clark and University of Vermont political science professor, and town meeting guru, Frank Bryan published All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community, a primer on the current state of town meetings in Vermont, some practical suggestions for how to increase voter turnout and participation, and an open admonition for the secret voting process known as the Australian ballot.

Since then, a few towns have taken them up on their suggestions, and several others have fought to keep their town meetings alive — namely in Cabot, Wolcott, and possibly Tinmouth. All three took up the issues in November. Cabot and Wolcott voted by nearly two-to-one margins to keep their traditional town meetings alive. In Tinmouth the community voted — by a margin of one vote — to go to secret balloting. Townspeople will spend this coming town meeting debating whether that one-vote margin was enough to change more than 100 years of deciding budgets and town policy.

Town officials in the sprawling town of Hartford, which encompasses the villages of Hartford, Queeche, White River Junction, West Hartford, and Wilder, are also looking at ways to inject new life into town meeting.

Hartford has empaneled an 11-member commission to reexamine its entire charter, and determine if it should model its town meeting after the representative form used in Brattleboro and parts of Western Massachusetts. In this form, rather than anyone in town voting at town meeting, a select group of people are elected by their neighbors to attend, debate, and cast ballots.

Michael Lyford, a member of the commission, said the town has more than 7,000 voters, but only about 250 attend town meeting.

Changing how they self-govern is just one of a suite of options the committee is examining. The group is charged with devising a proposal by January 2008.

Clark is hopeful that Hartford could set a trend in Vermont.

“I would like to see that be an increasing trend among the larger towns,” said Clark of representative town meeting. In large towns turnout can be as low as 5 percent, while small towns can see turnout of 35 percent or more.

“By making these decisions to stick with town meeting, these communities are recognizing that issues matter,” said Clark. “The more that federal and state governments take over some of the big questions — and that is a disturbing trend — the value of the local remains, and that democratic tradition has an intrinsic value.”

Both Clark and Bryan believe in towns with more than 5,000 people this form of town meeting can be more effective for large towns than the classic model.

In fact, in their book Hartford was one community it selected as a likely candidate for such an approach. The others include Bennington, Colchester, Barre, Newport, St. Albans, Montpelier, Winooski, Rutland, and South Burlington.

In addition to these local stances to stave off the death of local town meetings, legislative changes under discussion could make town meetings more meaningful.

‘We have been talking with the legislature about a package of proposals that strengthen town meeting and one of the proposals is to have Town Meeting Day, which is already a state holiday, treated the way we treat jury duty,” said Deb Markowitz, secretary of state. This means that employers could not punish someone, or fire them, for taking time off to attend a town meeting or go vote.

She also hopes to make it easier for towns to move from an open town meeting to a representative town meeting. Under current state law, for a town to make such a change, they must amend their charter. However to go from a town meeting to Australian balloting to make decisions they only need to take a vote.

“This would simply add to the choices the state is providing towns as they decide to self-govern and this could be a way to not lose the deliberative benefit that you have on a floor vote,” said Markowitz. “With Australian ballots, the quantity of democracy is greater because it’s a quicker exercise to just cast a vote, but you don’t have the same quality of democracy and the deliberation that happens in a town meeting is what strengthens a community. That kind of local democracy is a way to end up with decisions people can live with better.”

Good & bad
What keeps Town Meeting Day — usually the first Tuesday in March — such a bastion of rural politics is that every local resident who chooses to attend becomes, in effect, a legislator, free to express their views and empowered to make binding decisions.

Town meetings have been hotbeds of issues in Vermont and around the nation — from challenging slavery and McCarthyism in the past to leading the national debate on a nuclear freeze and the impeachment of Pres. George W. Bush.

In a day and age when Vermonters opinions of its own Legislature hover below 50 percent and the nation’s opinion of Congress is around 30 percent, perhaps it’s the town meeting process that could revive democracy.

At least that’s what Bryan argues in his new book Real Democracy, a book that has taken him nearly 30 years to compile and write — the tome of tomes when it comes to analyzing and understanding town meetings.

“The heart of the American republic, it seems to me, has beat to the rhythm of only two philosophies that matter: liberalism by which we live, and communitarianism by which we dream,” he writes.

Clark said despite the doom and gloom, there are positive signs.

“The good news is that with town meeting we fret and worry, but the numbers are very good in terms of people being involved in local government,” said Clark.

The bad news is that towns are moving to the Australian ballot as a way to boost voter turnout, and doing away with the town meeting.

This trend may be helped by the number of schools that have switched to an Australian ballot system for approving budgets, a trend, in turn, caused by the expansion of union school districts. By state law, union school districts must use secret ballots.

Clark said the turnout never reaches the percentage people hope for — such as the 60-70 percent voter turnout during presidential elections.

And, the informational meetings held before the secret ballots are cast, “don’t have the vivaciousness of the town meeting, and Vermonters don’t turn out unless there is something really happening,” Clark said.

Some towns, she notes, are bringing new people into the meeting. For starters, some are reinstituting the community meal, and others are offering child care.

“We went around to a number of different towns and people were really picking up on some of the suggestions we had in our book, and these were simple things like reinstating a meal at town meeting or even just a potluck dessert,” said Clark. “People thought that having food was making it more inefficient and they wanted to cut down on the time that the meeting took, but they were cutting out the fun part.”

Other towns, like Greensboro, hand out community awards each year, and others have dabbled with using cable access television.

Bryan believes no matter how many scholars, journalists, and layman bemoan the loss of the democratic town meeting, somehow they will endure.

“They have been doing this for two hundred years,” he writes. “It matters not what others may call it. It resides deep in our dearest dreams does this passion for place and the politics of peace. It is like the springtime. It is a longing. What kind of place is it, this cradle of democracy, this Vermont?”

So, Vermonters: Are you ready to call the question?