Legislative Report 1/15/2013 - Can This Vermont Institution Survive?

Do you attend Town Meeting regularly?  Are you unable to attend Town Meeting because of work, lack of child care, or some other valid reason?  Or, is Town Meeting something you are unfamiliar with or just don’t care about?

Town Meeting on the first Tuesday in March is a uniquely New England institution and is especially revered here in Vermont.  As the population has grown, however, smaller percentages of voters are attending for a variety of reasons.  Some even in Charlotte have called into question the value of Town Meeting since budget decisions are being made by a small minority of the voters.  This issue came to a head last May when a special Town Meeting was held to reconsider the passage of the article authorizing sidewalks to be built in the west village.  A separate article was included to change the vote on the town budget to an Australian ballot in the same way we vote on the school budget.  The budget article was tabled, killing it for the time being. 

The discussion regarding the budget article served as an impetus for a group of Charlotte citizens to get together to study the issue with the goal of increasing participation in Town Meeting by making it more accessible.  It also included some attendees who felt that our traditional Town Meeting was no longer suited to today’s world.  So, back in December, a small group led by Joanna Cummings and John Hammer invited Middlesex Town Clerk Susan Clark, who co-authored a book about Town Meeting with UVM professor Frank Bryan called All Those in Favor, to visit and talk about their research and some of the steps Middlesex has taken to make their Town Meeting work better.

Clark considers Town Meeting to be a valuable exercise in direct democracy that is worth preserving.  Some of the points she made include:

    • As a vehicle of direct democracy, no elected representatives intervene between the citizens and what town government says or how it acts.
    • In Vermont every citizen is a legislator; town government is truly by and of the people.
    • Town meetings are legislatures operated by its citizens.

In order to make Town Meeting more meaningful in today’s society, it is necessary to understand why people won’t attend the meeting and what the real issues are.  Do they feel intimidated by the process?  Is it not worth their time?  Do they lack the information they need to feel competent to participate?  To gather information on the reasons and attitudes of its citizens, Middlesex conducted a town-wide survey, not only on paper, but through living room meetings.  They also created an “operator’s manual” as a guide to how Town Meeting works.   Every new voter also gets a welcome letter that includes a two-page description of the Town Meeting process and encourages them to attend.  They also provide child care, make food available, and have moved the meeting to the evening with a set time for the budget discussion to begin.  They have even experimented with remote participation via web-streaming and teleconferencing.

The Charlotte group has since expanded and is developing some recommendations to Charlotte’s Selectboard for discussion.  The aim is to increase participation at Town Meeting by making it more accessible and to make people more aware of its importance both to our community and to our democracy.  This ad hoc committee is also working to expand discussion within the community before Charlotters make any decision that would irrevocably destroy a valuable Vermont institution for our town.  Anyone who would like to participate in our discussions is encouraged to contact John Hammer at 802-870-3481 or via email at TownMeeting05445@gmail.com.
As the new session of the Vermont legislature begins, I look forward to again sharing with you important developments in future articles.  As before, I invite you to contact me with your concerns and opinions via email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or via phone (425-3960).